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The video game World of Warcraft includes lots of pop culture references (also Warcraft I, II, and III). Did Blizzard have to get licenses from the IP owners to include these references in their games ? This could be a possibility since there is really a lot of such references in WOW.

It could be also covered by 'fair use' but very unlikely.

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Generally speaking pop-culture references, like literary references, are neither trademark infringement nor copyright infringement.

Trademarks

Often a referenced item is in fact not a trademark. Most character names, for example, are not protectable as trademarks, because they are not used to identify the product or service, nor to advertise the product or service for sale. Similarly many pop-culture references which are associated with various groups, events, or products are not being used to identify or promote those things, and so are not protectable as trademarks.

Even when a reference is (or includes) a trademarked phrase, it is unlikely to be trademark infringement. As long as the user of the trademarked term or phrase is not using it so as to identify the product or service where it is used, is not using it to advertise or promote that product or service, is not using it in such a way as to cause confusion by reasonable people on what the source of the product or service is, and is not using it so as to falsely state or imply that the product ore service is endorsed, sponsore, or approved by the owner of the trademark, then the use is not in fringement.

One may use a trademark to identify a related product or service, to indicate compatibility, or to make comparative claims, and that is nominative use (using the mark as the name of the thing marked). Nominative use is specifically not infringement.

Copyright

Names, taglines, titles, mottos, and other short phrases are not protected by copyright at all. See the US Copyright office Circular 33 -- Works Not Protected by Copyright, where it is stated:

Words and short phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans, are uncopyrightable because they contain an insufficient amount of authorship. The Office will not register individual words or brief combinations of words, even if the word or short phrase is novel, , distinctive, or lends itself to a play on words.

This circulart includes as exMPLES:

  • The name of a character
  • Catchwords or catchphrases
  • Mottos, slogans, or other short expression

As I wrote in https://writing.stackexchange.com/questions/60965/what-are-the-fair-use-rules-in-the-usa-for-short-quotes-from-books-or-song-lyric

Literary references, including short quotes, to other works of fiction are commonly allowed as fair use. They are usually appropriately attributed.

There are several reasons for this. Such references normally do not serve as a replacement for the original. They normally do not harm the market, actual or potential for the original. And they are often transformative, that is, they re-user has a different purpose and achieves a different effect from the original. All of these factors are important in fair-use decisions, and all lean toward fair use for literary or pop-culture references. In fact, there are few cases to cite on such references, because it is so widely accepted that they would be fair uses that no on ever sues over them.

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