(I am not a lawyer. Everything that follows is a product of my meager understanding of American intellectual property protection. Feel free to correct me.)

If you’re naming a male character Sue because of the Johnny Cash song (written by Shel Silverstein) ”A Boy Named Sue”, then no. That’s a person’s name. 

Names are not protected by copyright. Copyright law does not protect names, titles, or short phrases or expressions. Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright.” (x)

Even if you argued that the name was covered by the copyright as part of the lyrics of the song, using a few words of a song is not usually considered copyright infringement, and since the creator of the song like “A Boy Named Sue” would have to prove that he originated and popularized the name in the first place in order to pursue any legal action, he’d have a tough time proving any law was broken. 

A name could be trademarked. Maybe a name from a famous song like “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles could be protected by a trademark because “Eleanor Rigby” is the title of song. Titles are sometimes protected by trademark, and trademark law and copyright law are two different types of intellectual property protection.

Whether it’s copyrighted or trademarked, however, using a name from a song for a character should be fine. Writers are generally free to use trademarked titles and names in their work as well as limited portions (the exact amount changes on a case by case basis) of a copyrighted work as long as the source material is given proper credit. 

If you’re really concerned, you could try contacting the song’s creator and asking permission to use the name. 

Even if you’re not concerned, I recommend you read up on intellectual property protection. Here are some good resources:

And since it may be of interest:

Thank you for your question! If you have any comments on this article or other questions about writing, you can message us here!

-C

P.S. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are not the same thing. (x) (x) (x)


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