Can I Name my Characters after Famous Characters from Old Book – Entertainment Law Asked & Answered


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Will you get in trouble if you name your characters after famous characters from an older book or film?

Hi, I'm entertainment lawyer Gordon Firemark, and this is Asked and Answered, where I answer common entertainment law questions, so you can take your career to the next level.

Clark is an aspiring author working on a high epic fantasy novel… He has a question regarding characters after reading some of my posts on the King Arthur and Robin Hood stories. He writes:

“In my fantasy world, there is a kingdom where the regnant names of the kings come from King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. These names are spelled exactly alike the characters of the Round Table. Only the names are used. There is no other connection to the characters of the Arthur Mythology. Is using these names a copyright infringement risk?”

Well, the short answer, Clark is no. I can confidently say that there's NO risk to using the names of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, and so on in your book… at least not any legal risk.  Some publishers might feel that it's too derivative, or whatever, but that's an artistic decision best left to artists and marketers.

So, there are actually a few levels to this.

First off, those characters were initially created in the 1680's or thereabouts, so any copyright protection for the stories in which they appeared has long since expired. In fact, at that time, in England there wasn't even a law equivalent to copyright… protecting the work of authors. The Statute of Anne wasn't enacted until 1710. When it went into effect, protection lasted for 14 years.

Modern copyright law protects things for a considerably longer time, 70 years beyond the author's death. So even under the modern approach it would still be expired.

But there's another aspect to this… character names aren't protected (much) by copyright. Copyright requires originality to get protection… and given names like Arthur and Merlin probably don't qualify.  Even for the less common sounding names, they're only a small part of a much larger whole, so a Court would probably find that taking just the names, without the accompanying storylines, or other characteristics is what we call “de minimis”, and thus not copyright infringing.

But you DO need to beware when using some kinds of character names… for example “Harry Potter”, is a trademark.  It is protected against any use that would cause a likelihood of confusion among consumers. If you were able to write a book about a character named Harry Potter, people might think it was either written by or authorized by JK Rowling… and she's got strong reasons to want to prevent that.

But even that protection has limits… so if your characters Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin and Guineviere are sitting around talking about their favorite books, or characters, and one of them mentions “Harry Potter”, that would be OK.

But any further discussion on this will take us down a deep rabbit hole… so let me just suggest that if you're going in that kind of direction, consult a lawyer.And to get your question answered here, just hit me at https://firemark.com/questions.

See you soon.

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