Okay so I am writing something that is like a chronicle of science, culture and technological progression in a popular sci-fi franchise. I don't expect my work to be published for many years. Right now I am just collecting ideas. However, I am nervous on what I will be allowed to do. I have 3 main questions

  1. If something appeared in that sci-fi universe prior to me re-iterating it; does that mean it's fair game for me to use? Its already used in that sci-fi universe but in a very obscure publication of it but once it's been used; can I use it again without any problem?

  2. Does intellectual law protect very specific plot concepts? I have a concept I thought of and like I said, I probably won't get published for several years. If someone publishes a story with that concept; can I still use it?

  3. Are you allowed to borrow names of different generic sci-fi inventions that aren't super-important to the story. I want to use a name for a piece of tech from Star Trek and I was wondering if that is okay.

I won't say which franchise I hope to be writing for; but it's very big and quite popular.

UPDATE: Basically I am writing a timeline of sorts in-universe of all technological, scientific, cultural, socioeconomic and historical achievements in that universe written from a in-universe point of view

  • Just to clarify, there is a science-fiction setting (like Star Wars or Star Trek) and you want to write a book about the development of that setting? The details would likely depend on the jurisdiction, but the legality would depend on how you set quotations apart from your own work. Basically, you can write a thesis on the depiction of computers in various generations of Star Trek, but you cannot write something like the Star Trek Tech Manual.
    – o.m.
    Dec 10, 2022 at 6:30
  • Copyright laws differ throughout the world; what jurisdiction are you interested in? Also, when you say "a chronicle of science, culture and technological progression in a popular sci-fi franchise" can you give an example of what you mean?
    – sharur
    Dec 10, 2022 at 7:26
  • @Jen These are all really aspects of a single question, and in my view this should not be closed as lacking focus. And the liked questions cover aspects of this question, but are not in my view true duplicates, and this should not be closed as a dup. Therefore I have provided an answer. Dec 10, 2022 at 17:41
  • @o.m. I think that you will find that something like the the Star Trek Tech Manual can be created without permission and would not be an infringement, provided that it does not excessively use direct quotations from the original. A detailed account of in-universe "facts" is not in itself an infringement. One of the books about the Harry Potter universe ("Magical Beasts" perhaps??) was found to be infringing, but only because it was largely a collection of quotations from the source books. Dec 10, 2022 at 17:48
  • @DavidSiegel, let's say the dance around trademarks and copyrights would require lawyers on staff, or risk a lawsuit.
    – o.m.
    Dec 11, 2022 at 10:33

1 Answer 1


If one is writing about a work of fiction, one may describe the work, and use terms from the work in doing so. One might write, for example:

In Spaceman Sam the characters use "blasters" as weapons, while in Jack of the Galaxy "contragravity" is used to propel "aircars"

These are facts, and copyright may never be used to protect facts. Moreover, such uses as reviews and criticism are particularly likely to constitute fair use under US law, or another exception to copyright under the law of some other country, even if some otherwise protected content is quoted.

If something appeared in that sci-fi universe prior to me re-iterating it; does that mean it's fair game for me to use?

If the "something" that appeared earlier is an "idea" or a name, it is indeed fair game. This is true whether it is obscure or well-known. In any case describing the facts of the fiction, even in detail, is generally not an infringement.

If "re-iterating" something from an existing work in a new fiction involves an extensive quotation, or a detailed, point-by-point reuse of a fictional element, that might constitute infringement, unless fair use or another exception to copyright applies.

Does intellectual law protect very specific plot concepts?

No, it doesn't. A plot concept is an idea. In the US, 17 USV 103(b) reads:

(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Laws in other countries are similar on this point. This is sometimes known as the idea/expression distinction. This means that while the expression used to embody a concept is often protected by copyright, the concept itself never is.

Are you allowed to borrow names of different generic sci-fi inventions that aren't super-important to the story.

Yes. In fact even the names of fictional technological devices that are very important to a story may be, and often are, reused in different works by different authors. For example Ursula LeGuin used "ansible" as the name of a faster-then-light communicator, in fact an instantaneous communication device, in her "Hanish" series, particularly in The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Word for World is Forest. (She wrote that the term was derived from the word "answerable".) The term and concept were reused by Vernor Vinge in "The Blabber" and A Fire Upon the Deep, and by Elizabeth Moon in the "Sassanek" series and more centrally in the "Vatta's war" series starting with Trading in Danger.

Moreover, the names of fictional characters are not protected. An author might introduce characters with names borrowed from Tolkien, Heinlein, or other well-known (or obscure) fictional works. US Copyright Office circular #33 "Works not protected by Copyright" says that "names, titles, and short phrases" may not be protected by copyright, and will not be separably registered.

However, if a character has not only the name of a previous character, but a detailed, point-by-point similarity in distinctive elements to a character in a protected work, that may be enough to make the newer work a derivative work, and thus be infringing if permission is not obtained from the copyright holder on the source work. The same is true of the detailed reproduction of a distinctive setting from a source work. But a mere name and broad, general description is not enough tom make a later work derivative. The more details are reproduced, and the more distinctive and specific those details are, the more likely the newer work is to be found distinctive.

  • Hmm, in Heinlein's "The Number of the Beast", he has stuff from existing other fictional worlds like Oz and Barsoom. Were these public domain at the time, or was that somehow fair use, or..?
    – Alan
    Dec 11, 2022 at 3:17
  • 1
    @alan Those kinds of literary references are generally considerd to be fair use if the book is still in copyright., They are very common. Oz was probabnly already PD when RAH wrote NotB, however. Barsoom probably not, and the Lensman books (ALSO REFERENCED) almost surely not. Dec 11, 2022 at 3:30

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