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It is possible to avoid trademarks by changing them slightly, such as replacing words if a name is a combination of multiple common language words? I have seen various media (video games, films) re-using names from other media and changing words of such names. (Them call this as "pop culture references". And the owners/creators of such media don't disclose if they have gotten authorization to do this).

Example of a such change: "Blackrock" to "Bluerock" or similar.

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  • Relevant Q&A: law.stackexchange.com/questions/56155/… Jan 25 at 8:26
  • In Germany, there was a lawsuit of the owners of the trademarks "Quellgold" (gold of the source) and "Goldquell" (source of gold) - as far as I remember both of them were selling water and/or drinks. It was not allowed because in Germany, it is not allowed to use some trademark that can easily be confused with another trademark. And the court found that these two trademarks can be confused with each other. Jan 25 at 21:41

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The legal standard, evaluated on a case by case basis, when one firm uses a trademark that is similar to another firm's trademarks to market its goods or services in the same industry is whether the trademark is "confusingly similar" and in some cases whether it "dilutes" the first in time famous trademark.

Many people writing fictional media, or making academic hypotheticals, make changes to an existing famous mark along the lines of those described in the question, in the hope of making a popular culture reference, while avoiding a feared exposure to trademark infringement and defamation liability. But that fear is mostly misguided.

A trademark is not a right to have monopoly use of the mark in writing or other media. "Nominative use" of a mark is legal and does not expose the person making nominative use of a mark to liability.

What is prohibited is using the protected mark to market goods or services in commerce, in a market where the trademark one fears being infringed currently exists and is being used to market goods or services of that trademark owner, to give the false impression of an association, affiliation, or endorsement by the trademark owner.

The gravamen of a trademark infringement lawsuit is fraud and deception perpetrated on consumers to the detriment of the trademark owner. This is almost never a real risk in a fictional work.

To the extent that there is a legal concern at all about distinguishing a fictional firm from a real one, the bigger legal exposure is to defamation liability.

In other words, the bigger concern is the risk that the fictional work is viewed as making a thinly veiled false factual statement about the real world firm that damages its reputation (e.g. if it were to depict a fictional analogy of the real world firm "Taco Bell" making tacos out of horse meat as the real world firm has often, falsely, been accused of doing in real life because its prices are so low).

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    I think the "endorsement" clause you mention tends to be invoked pretty broadly in TV/movie licensing. Google has strict requirements to allow their logo to be used, so many shows use fictional search engines. Apple will only allow their products to be used by the "good guys".
    – Barmar
    Jan 25 at 15:24
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    @Barmar: There is some question as to the enforceability of those provisions (disclaimer: I work for Google, but not on legal issues), but more to the point, the main concern you tend to see is actually the opposite problem (i.e. the production company doesn't want to endorse or "place" a product unless they're getting paid to do so, or in the case of the BBC, they don't want to do so at all because it would violate their charter).
    – Kevin
    Jan 25 at 20:39

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