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I have a question regarding the use of fantasy books in a PhD thesis. Imagine for example that I'm writing an example motivating the use of databases. Can I design e.g. a database composed of Game of Thrones characters and put it into the thesis? I noticed that some people put some fake examples or examples from Greek mythology so I'm wandering if it is legal to put examples from different books.

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    Ask your advisor first, it could be they find it cool or childish.
    – user111388
    Dec 5, 2020 at 12:20

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I agree with Wrzlprmft that, assuming the names are trademarked, mere use of the names as hypothetical entries in a database would not constitute trademark infringement.

And names cannot be copyrighted. See Circular 33, US Copyright Office, "Works not protected by copyright" which states on p. 3 that "The name of a character" cannot be copyrighted. Online at https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ33.pdf

But suppose that somehow, somehow the GoT people found your thesis and sued. Your thesis would instantly become internationally known. You can't buy publicity like that. ;-)

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This isn't a definitive answer, as I'm not a lawyer. And laws differ over the Globe. But such things are a matter of civil, not criminal, law, generally, so the question comes down to whether a "rights holder" would object and file suit. This is more likely in some cases than others and, if a suit is filed, it is very expensive to defend.

But, just a guess here, that if the characters you wish to use are covered by Trade Mark that you would be on shakier ground than otherwise. I, personally, would avoid the use of Disney characters, for example, as I think they are all trademarked and the trademark holders can be very sensitive about repurposing those characters.

Once those rights expire, however, they are fair game, and the only questions would be about whether this adds to or subtracts from the paper you want to write.

Presumably you are associated with a university. Many of them have an office of intellectual property rights that can give you actual legal advice on your question. I haven't looked at the trademark question for GoT characters, but would guess that they might well be covered. Such "properties" can be very valuable and the rights holders want total control. They also have a legal team that might overreact.

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  • I used to use a very recognizable picture of a very famous mouse with the heading, "Is this mouse fair use?" I got a lot of interesting discussion and never got The Letter from BakerHostetler. Of course, my example was never in a public repository, either.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 5, 2020 at 13:42
  • @BobBrown, hmmm, do they send letters or just arrive at your door guns a' blazing?
    – Buffy
    Dec 5, 2020 at 14:09
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    Trademarks are protecting the trademark holders’ brand and more generally commercial exploitation of their intellectual property. Nobody is buying a PhD thesis because it uses characters from Game of Thrones as examples and the PhD thesis is not sold using the inclusion of GoT characters for marketing. So, we are very far from any potential trademark infringement.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Dec 5, 2020 at 15:17
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    @Buffy: "Affecting commercial value" is a copyright issue, generally, not a trademark issue. – Well, copyright is clearly not affected either. For that you would have to include entire text passages, pictures or similar. — And being civil law, you can still get sued by aggressive legal teams. – Well, you can be sued for a lot of things, more crucial is what you can be convicted for.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Dec 5, 2020 at 16:36
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    A few useful links on fair use and trademark protections. My reading of these is that including these names (just the names) in a PhD thesis should be fine...but even if my reading is correct (always dubious), one must ask if asserting these rights is worth the potential legal fallout. Plenty of great names in Greek mythology....
    – cag51
    Dec 5, 2020 at 20:02
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I am not a lawyer, but I doubt a court would consider your proposed use a violation of either trademark or copyright:

  • Individual names are generally not able to be protected by copyright.
  • HBO has trademarked a whole bunch of GoT-related things including character names, but simply referencing a trademarked name is not a violation. In essence, trademark law boils down to "are you trading off somebody else's reputation/brand?"

As a point of data, Alison Green's advice column "Ask A Manager" frequently uses GoT character names to conceal the identities of letter-writers and their colleagues when describing workplace dilemmas.

AAM is a fairly well-known column, successful enough to have a compilation book published. It's more visible than most PhD theses will ever be, and as far as I can tell the use of GoT names has never been an issue. If it flies there—which apparently it does—it's unlikely that doing something similar in your PhD thesis is going to cause problems.

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