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I'm developing a commercial app for learning Japanese targeted at manga/anime fans. It teaches how to read Japanese.

I had the idea of popular titles, most of which are probably trademarked, as example phrases. For example: Naruto (ナルト), Dragon Ball (ドラゴンボール), Gintama (銀魂) and so on.

It'd be akin to an app for learning English that uses the word Mickey Mouse to teach pronunciation, I guess.

Does this infringe trademark law? I'm not using clips or logos, just showing how those words are spelled.

Additionally, can I use a known quote (well, a meme) of a show in similar way without infringing their copyright? For example: omae wa mou shindeiru おまえはもう死んでいる. (in an parallel: does using "you're a wizard, Harry!" to teach English pronunciation infringe H.P. copyright?)

  • Are you located in the US, Japan, or somewhere else? – D M Jun 2 '18 at 17:06
  • Brazil. But I plan on releasing the app on Google store, etc. for US/English audiences. – OdraEncoded Jun 2 '18 at 19:08
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Applicability of trademark laws

Trademark laws apply when you intend to use a word as the name of a brand, make, model, or otherwise the identifier of what you intend to sell. In addition, trademarks are registered within a bound domain and do not impact anything outside it. For example:

  • There are two Apple trademarks: One for Apple Inc., the notorious American company that sells iPhone and Mac. The other is a record label.
  • The Metro Inc. from Canada and the Metro AG from Germany cannot sue Microsoft for trademarking the word "Metro" for its API.

Applicability of copyright laws

Copyright, however, does not apply to individual names. Once a work as a whole is protected by copyright laws, no part of it may be reproduced in any way without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. But then, copyright laws of different countries are subject to such exceptions as:

  • Threshold of originality (whether something as a whole has enough authorship to be protected by copyright, whose purpose is to foster the growth of original art and culture); this does not apply to you.
  • The de minimis principle (applies when the violation of the law, including copyright, is so insignificant that the only disruption in the whole system of the governing country is the lawsuit itself)
  • The fair use principle (an exemption that applies to works that definitely infringe upon the core statements of copyright laws but they don't impact the author of original work significantly and actually foster the growth of art and culture). See the following:

    Would it be legal to copy a small passage from a book to a website for language teaching purposes?

The sum of all fears! (Pun intended)

So, for the usage that you mentioned, neither the trademark laws nor copyright laws hinder you.

But err on the side of caution: I've been told that while the spirit of the laws don't hinder what you explained, there were cases in U.S. in which some trademark holder attacked a party that used its mark, claiming that the latter intended to falsify association. Believe me, you don't want this to happen, i.e. you don't want to go to the court even though you win. (Not unless you have ample money, time and nerves, and are willing to waste them.)

So, publishers (well... at least, American and Canadian publishers) usually add a fineprint like this to their works:

  • "Windows" is a trademark of "Microsoft Corporation". Unless stated otherwise, our use of this trademark does not imply any form of association to, or endorsement by, Microsoft Corporation.
  • "Harry Potter" is an imprint of "Scholastic Corporation". Unless stated otherwise, our mention of the aforementioned does not imply [...]

Your disclaimer, however, should probably be in Brazilian Portuguese, in which I am not fluent. So, you might want to use the appropriate literature. The purpose of this disclaimer is to defuse the potential lawsuit before it goes to the court. First, it reassures the trademark holder that you don't seek to abuse his/her mark. Second, if he/she is not convinced, there will be the burden of proving that your disclaimer was a lie. Going to the court isn't cheap and the burden of proof makes it more expensive. In United States, there is an additional device called "motion" that complements this reassurance in your favor.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer, I'll make sure to include a disclaimer. Does something like this goes direct to court? Or would the copyright/trademark holder attempt to contact me requesting for removal first? – OdraEncoded Jun 6 '18 at 21:22
  • If you include the disclaimer, it is unlikely. I have added the details to the answer. – user13339 Jun 7 '18 at 0:21
  • The fact that the two Apples operate in different domains did not keep them out of court. – phoog Jun 7 '18 at 6:09
  • I won't be surprised if that were true. (But I'd like to see your source too.) When companies grow rich and profitable, and hire lawyers to handle going to the court, what you said is a natural outcome. Still, I had to stick to the basics here; the nuances of registering a trademark was off-topic for this question. The OP does not want to do such a thing. – user13339 Jun 7 '18 at 17:56

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