Editing Historical Fiction Content: Issues of Trademark Violation

Here at Ooligan Press, the press has had many opportunities to work on historical fiction books. There are a lot of things to keep in mind while editing that are specific to this genre. Since a comprehensive analysis of all aspects of editing such content would be too extensive for a single blog post, I will focus here on how to avoid trademark violation.

When is it acceptable to mention a brand, and when does it cross the line into trademark infringement? This issue comes up often in historical fiction texts when the author wants to mention an item or company to help secure the storyline in time and place. When placed appropriately, such references add authenticity to the work. There are a few primary concepts to keep in mind as you approach trademarked brands and items.

If possible, the text should use generic names for items rather than a brand’s name. A common example is to have a character request a tissue in an emotional situation rather than a Kleenex. Otherwise, you may run into the problem of brand dilution, which is when well-known brand names are referenced in a generic way. For instance, a text that references “xeroxing” documents might run into legal problems with Xerox, who would not want their brand name used generically as a verb. In this case, the appropriate action would be to either capitalize Xerox, or (recommended) simply write “photocopy.”

What if it’s important to the story to reference a specific brand or company name? For instance, in Ooligan’s newest release The Ocean in My Ears, the fact that the main character Meri eats SweeTARTS and hangs out at Dairy Queen fits with the book’s early 1990s setting. In such a case, it is worth seeking permission to use the brand name(s) at hand. At a small press like Ooligan, we may not have the luxury of entire departments dedicated to permissions, licensing, and the like, but that doesn’t make it any less vital to secure the rights to mention a brand.

There are two central issues in determining if brand reference is appropriate. First, does its usage promote the retail value of the service or product? If the author is trying to sell something to the reader, competing companies will take issue. However, if it is a neutral identifier, such as how Meri drives a VW Bug, that is acceptable. In the other direction, you’ll (unsurprisingly) run into trouble for allowing a text to defame a brand in any way.

What if there is an organization the writer might end up tarnishing while describing it, but whose characteristics are essential to the plot? In such a case, a good solution is to create a fictional company that is reminiscent of—but not identical to—the author’s reference point. For example, you’d find yourself in questionable territory were you to move forward with a plot in which the main character worked at Starbucks in 1987, hated their job and the expansion of the company, and thus degrades the brand. If writer were to draw upon their own experience working at the chain, however, but invent a company that shares some characteristics of Starbucks without being an explicit parallel, you could approve that storyline. It would be fine for a character, for instance, to bemoan how their independent coffee shop has become commercialized, thus losing its unique character. However, the character cannot complain that there was corruption in their shop, which is named Starby’s and founded in Washington State, and say that it engaged in ethical violations as it became more mainstream.

Keep these guidelines in mind, and the process of editing text with trademarks will go smoothly. A properly referenced trademark can enhance historical fiction works in ways that could not be accomplished otherwise, so it’s important to know about these legal restrictions.

Blue Thread and the Obsession with Time Travel

While I was reading Blue Thread, I couldn’t help but think of the fact that there are so many films, television series, and books all about time travel and the consequences or effects of time travel. Why is that? There’s the appeal that we can go back to glamorous times and explore history, but is there more to it?

Is it because we all have a need to go fix a mistake in the past? Some people want to go back to take back that one regret, that one final argument that changed everything, or that time they walked away from the person they were supposed to end up with. People never sit up late at night thinking of all the choices they have made that they are proud of. No, we stay awake and obsess over the regrets. We think over and over again, what if?

What if I had never said that? What if I said that? What if I had taken that chance? What if I quit my job? What if I moved to a different city? You just experienced the worst breakup ever and do not know how to move on with your life? That’s okay. All you have to do is go back in time and never date that person—problem solved. If you want to make sure you are choosing the right major in college, you can simply jump ahead to your future and check things out.

With time travel, it is possible to go back to all our mistakes, our regrets, our missed chances, and fix them. We could erase the what-ifs from our lives. We could choose the perfect path we want to take. We could make mistakes and then take them back. With time travel we could live our perfect fairy-tale lives and never have to live with the heavy weight of regret, the shadow of guilt, or the shame and pain that come with some memories.

But these are all the obvious attractions to the idea of going back in time to fix a mistake or jumping ahead to see if our futures worked out the way we planned. We all like to imagine we are important, that we are relevant or connected to something meaningful. But through time we realize that though we may not recognize it, there are so many people feeling the same emotions and thinking the same thoughts as we are. Time travel is part of that in storytelling.

We all feel the clock ticking, our time running out. If we can travel in time, there is an illusion that we are somehow expanding our time or that we have control over time, something that in the end controls us all.

Through a magical object, a writer can show the feeling of being trapped between worlds or show a comparison. Blue Thread shows that through its main character, Miriam. Miriam feels trapped in the world she is in, but through travelling in time realizes that people have been struggling with the same issue for years, and in her world she fights to change that. Time travel is the gateway that Miriam uses to discover her strength and find her importance, but she is given that gateway because she is special. And that is what we all want: to be special and have that unlimited time that is offered by time traveling.

From Jackie O. to Flower Child

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending a reading for Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s just-released title The Ninth Day at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton. The Ninth Day is Ooligan’s most recent publication and is a companion novel to the Oregon Book Award-winning novel Blue Thread.

As the current project manager for The Ninth Day, I may be just a little bit biased, but I love to see Ruth at literary events. Her readings are always informative and interactive, and they usually involve some sort of costume change and props. To help get her audience in the mood for this event, Ruth came dressed in a 1964-style “Jackie O” costume; over the course of the reading, she gradually transformed from a proper lady into a wild hippie flower child, complete with flowing floral wreath for her head and a tie-dyed dress. During this transformation, Ruth read several different sections of her novel, introducing everyone in attendance to the story and teasing those that haven’t yet read the book with a suspenseful scene from the dramatic climax. At one point while she was reading, I looked back and noticed several Powell’s customers had paused their shopping to hear what was happening onstage. Clearly Ruth had won some new fans.

Ruth Tenzer Feldman reading at Powell's

If you missed this event but still want a chance to meet Ruth and get your book signed, you can catch her on Sunday, December 1st at the Oregon Historical Society’s annual Holiday Cheer Author Celebration, where she will be signing copies of both Blue Thread and The Ninth Day. That event will be held at the Oregon Historical Society at 1200 SW Park from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. You can also see her read again on Monday, December 16th at the official launch party for The Ninth Day. The launch will take place at the historic Koehler house, located at 732 NW 19th Avenue. Although this building currently serves as home to the law firm of Kilmer, Voorhees, & Laurick, readers of the series will better recognize it as the fictional Josephson house, home to Miriam and her family in Blue Thread. Attendees of the event will have the chance to enter a raffle for a full classroom set of The Ninth Day for the teacher of their choice.

For more updates on The Ninth Day, be sure to check out the Start to Finish page, where you can read weekly updates about the production process. To keep in touch with Ruth Tenzer Feldman, visit her website and be sure to sign up for her newsletter to get a free e-book of Florrie’s story, which takes place in the time period between Blue Thread and The Ninth Day.