While you might correctly assume that TV shows invent fake names because they don’t want to risk legal trouble by using the real ones, we were still curious. If everyone knows that when “30 Rock” is talking about “YouFace” they essentially mean Facebook, why even bother to change the name?
Despite everyone knowing what the characters mean, it can still be risky to use the actual name of a site. James Crowne, deputy executive director of legal affairs at the American Intellectual Property Law Association, says it depends on the storyline. For example, “The Good Wife” often focuses on current issues in the tech world: A recent episode pit ChumHum (the show’s version of Google) against Sleuthway (the show’s version of Facebook) in a case.
Although it was a fictional fight, if they used the real names, that could spell legal problems if the companies felt they were being defamed in some way.
“You might get yourself into trouble with one of those parties if they feel you’ve misrepresented the dispute,” Crowne said. “So the easy way around that is to pretend it has nothing to do with real-life parties and give it a fictionalized name. That gives you the liberty to cast the details of the dispute in a way that suits your storyline.”
Indeed, it can be easier – and way more entertaining – to just make up the details. Still, some shows skirt the line. There’s no question what “Roundsearch” really is.
It gets even tricker with tech company logos. On Nickelodeon, Dan Schneider famously uses “Pear” products on his shows that look suspiciously just like the Apple logo. The kids on “iCarly” visit the “iPear Store” and use PearPhones.
That’s probably something that would be decided on a case by case basis, Crowne said. If Apple really cared, they could send a letter. But they also might decide it’s just not worth it.
“Trademark owners are — or should be – practical minded,” Crowne said. They might ask, “Is it really worth the time and effort to chase this down? How much downside is there for this particular use?”
Generally, legal departments of entertainment networks want to avoid getting those letters. So instead of asking the company for permission, they make the writers change the names to something more innocuous, or just write around it completely, Crowne said.
Sometimes it can be a matter of saying the word out loud instead of showing it on the screen. Although, say, Google is very strict about its image physically presented in TV and film, you might still be able to get away with referencing the world’s most famous search engine out loud.
During a scene on Showtime’s “Dexter,” a character wants Dexter to use a different search tool: “You know, Google’s kind of five minutes ago, right?” he asks. Yet on the screen, instead of Google, there’s something called “NetRangler.” Problem solved.
But a lot of times, shows just want to avoid any potential hassle. In other words, expect to see more weird names on the small screen: SplashFace instead of YouTube, LoveFinder instead of Match.com, ZapLook instead of Google.
“I think that these folks would rather switch than fight in general,” Crowne said. “That is probably the simplest explanation of how these dynamics work.”