What's in a name?

Little enough, say authors Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss, who agreed to change a couple in the new Avon paperback version of their best-selling thriller, "The Spike."

Quite a lot, says Robert Borosage, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, who threatened legal action over the names, which he believes damaged his institution by "depicting it as a KGB disinformation front."

When the hardcover original of the novel -- a story about Soviet "disinformation" influence on the Western press and infiltration of official Washington -- was published by Crown last May, it described a liberal Washington think tank called the Institute for Progressive Reform, which had a "satellite" European office called the Multinational Institute. Both fictional organizations became tools for covert Soviet activities.

Although the book was widely regarded as a roman a clef, Borosage says his organization at first "dismissed it as shoddy fiction." But then the reviews started appearing, some of which suggested a connection between the fictional IPR and the real-life IPS. (Les Whitten in The Washington Post said that the IPS was "recognizable under a fake name," although "altered in an astounding way.")

Before the book was published, Borosage already was convinced that IPS, a liberal policy study group, "has become a popular target for the McCarthyite right, which is searching for a metaphor for a communist party that [doesn't exist]." So in March, when he heard that Avon was making a substantial investment in reprinting "The Spike," he threatened libel action. Borosage demanded that the names of the IPR and its European affiliate, the Multinational Institute (fictionally "depicted as an information source for terrorists," Borosage claims) be changed, along with the Amsterdam location of the institute. (The IPS' European office is called the Transnational Institute and is located in Amsterdam.)

Most literary disputes will fit comfortably in the average teapot with room to spare; and as such disputes go, this one seemed a mini-storm in a micro-pot. But the melee took on real menace because of the timing: IPS notified Avon of its objections on March 24, only a week before the presses were set to roll on a million mass-market copies of the book.

At that point, de Borchgrave, Moss and Crown executives were told of the problem. As the originating source, they would have to approve any changes in the Avon text. Moss says they discussed the complaint and "were sympathetic to the fact that some people were making that connection" between IPS and IPR. Since IPS was "only asking for three cosmetic changes, and it meant no rewriting or work on our part," Moss says, they agreed "as a gesture of good will" to change the word "Institute" to "Foundation," the Multinational Institute to the Third World Exchange and the location from Amsterdam to Brussels.

The charge of intentional resemblance between IPS and the fictional IPR, de Borchgrave says, is "absolute nonsense. Almost any institute in Washington has a branch in Europe. They're everywhere." Borosage, who has never met either author, counters that "we're the only progressive institute in the city that deals with domestic and foreign issues . . . so we're the metaphor."

Moss concedes that "any work of fiction that deals with international intrigue" will involve fictional parallels with real-life institutions. Identifying them, he says, "is a game which is great fun at cocktail parties." iBut he insists that "if we'd intended it to be IPS, we'd have described it by its true name," and says that he and de Borchgrave have denied the connection "literally hundreds of times on countless radio and TV shows."

IPS, however, had some financial leverage. Printing plants work on very tight schedules, and any delay in the "Spike" run not only would have been costly, but would have left Avon without a lead title for the month of May and without an immediate timetable for the printing, with or without name changes. Richard Sugarman, associate legal counsel at Avon, says the alteration was "the most expedient thing to do," since "it was clear to me that legal action was a possibility."

In early April Avon agreed to the three changes (which an IPS press release touts as "extensive"), providing that IPS waive any further objection. There was "no real formal document," Sugarman says, "just an exchange of letters between lawyers."

The legal climate surrounding fiction-libel suits has changed in recent years. In 1979, the California courts handed down a controversial verdict against novelist Gwen Davis, who was sued by a psychologist specializing in nude-encounter therapy who claimed that he was libeled by a fictional portrait in her 1971 novel "Touching." And earlier this year, a Wyoming court found for Kimerli Pring, a former Miss Wyoming who contended that she had been libeled by a character resembling Pring in a fictional story in Penthouse magazine.

One top Crown executive says that if a suit had been filed in the "Spike" case, "we would have won. But what's the point in winning? To take up a lot of time and fuss with a thing like this is absurd."