Copyright is a tricky area these days. The last thing you want to do is violate anyone’s copyright if you incorporate your research in your book.
For example, I used an actual thing the FBI has in Rose’s Hostage. I had permission to mention it, but I could not use the name. I found the information publicly available on their website, but it’s their name for it. So I made up a name (no big deal).
Make sure you google company names, product names, etc. that your characters work with. If it’s too close to a real trademark (or even if it just uses a similar word), you could find yourself in hot water from trademark bullies.
Writers and artists should know several important terms about copyright. The Internet has muddied the waters on this issue to a staggering degree. Some people think if it’s out there, it’s okay to use it / copy it / claim it as their own.
Plagiarism happens when someone takes material from another person and passes it off as his/her own. It can occur by failing to cite references, or by pure mean old copycatting. The latter is so prevalent on the Intertubes that some writers have searches set up to periodically scan the Web for their writing. This is particularly common in the world of blogging.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a U.S. law that helps content creators by criminalizing measures used to get around digital rights management protections. It also protects Internet content. You can read more about it at the link.
People who plagiarize on the Web can be hit with a DMCA takedown notice. This means that they have to remove the copied material and any false claims of ownership. If they do not, the copycat could find that his/her website has been taken down.
Fair use allows you to use some material directly from a book or other work, for commentary or academic/scholarly purposes. For example, you can quote a passage from a book in your essay, or a few lines of dialogue from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers screenplay if you’re writing a critique of it.
Make sure you correctly attribute the material you’re quoting, so you don’t run afoul of this permission.
If you put something on your website (even with attribution) and the rights holder asks you to remove it, DO IT. Again, they can file a DMCA notice and get your website taken down.
And don’t even start on what happens if you plagiarize in your book, and it gets published, and someone finds out what you did. Just ask Kaavya Viswanathan how humiliating that is. Even if your career isn’t completely trashed, no one will ever forget what you did.
Some things to remember if you’re doing research that will make it into your fiction:
- Don’t copy and paste anything. The old-school version of this was copying the encyclopedia entry and failing to cite it in your paper. Pissed your teacher off and cost you points, but s/he couldn’t sue you for using stuff that wasn’t yours.
- Make sure, like I did in Rose’s Hostage, that you don’t use trademarked names. Invent some of your own. Creative writing is supposed to be creative!
- Avoid accidental copying and make your writing better by skipping the info dump. That’s where a character or narrator suddenly barfs out a whole bunch of expository material into a scene. Weave it in among the threads of the story so both the characters and the reader find it out at the same time. In real life, action rarely stops so someone can explain everything.
For more information about copyrights and fair use, see this Stanford University link.
Edited to add: and this one http://www.copyright.gov/