About copyrights. What am I allowed to mention/how specific can I be? Can I make a direct quote from movies? Is that too specific? Can I make a joke about a politician? Or am I not allowed to call them by name? Can I mention a character from a novel? Or do I just have to say "a character from a book"? Can I have a character wear a Pokemon shirt? Or do I have to call it "a shirt with a red and white ball on it"? These are just examples, but how in depth can I go if I plan to get this published?
Lots of questions here, I’ll do my best to address them! (I am assuming you’re in the US- I don’t know about laws elsewhere, sorry! Also, I’m not a lawyer.)
What am I allowed to mention/how specific can I be?
It depends on what you’re referencing. If something’s entered public domain, you’re free to do pretty much anything with it. Dracula, for instance- you can have a character talk about him as much as you want. Historical figures and places are safe as well- George Washington, Boudicca, Seoul, Paris, et cetera.
Can I make a direct quote from movies?
Dialogue in a movie is copyright, and from what I’ve read, it can be extremely difficult to get permission to use quotes from movies because they belong to both the screenwriter and the producer.
Can I make a joke about a politician? Or am I not allowed to call them by name?
There’s lots of mixed opinions on this. On the one hand, if it’s not libel (i.e. not false and defamatory), you should be fine. Casual references are generally okay as well. Things become a little more complicated with celebrities than politicians, because they tend to have “brands” build around them.
Can I mention a character from a novel? Or do I just have to say “a character from a book”?
Public domain characters are A-OK. Dracula can stop on by, as can Sherlock Holmes and Watson, The Wizard of Oz, the Cheshire Cat, et cetera. For current characters, it depends on a lot more than I’m comfortable going into here- names can be trademarked, and it really depends on how a company/a judge/the jury feels about the reference (in those rare cases when it actually goes to trial).
Can I have a character wear a Pokemon shirt? Or do I have to call it “a shirt with a red and white ball on it”?
Again, it depends. A passing mention of either the name or description might be fine, under the “fair use” clause. However, Nintendo specifically tends to not like people using their things.
In short, the laws surrounding all of these are pretty complicated and subject to interpretation- there is rarely a solid answer. I know a lot of this sounds scary or intimidating, but if you plan on publishing traditionally, the people at the publishing house will be able to help you. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as people tend to think (after all, you only hear about the few who do get sued- you don’t hear about the thousands who don’t!).