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I am creating my own ttrpg and have reached the pantheon section. I was wondering whether or not I could use the name Vecna (not necessarily the same character) without receiving a lawsuit. Is it trademarked?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov I didn't intend it as a serious answer, as the trademark "Vecna" held by the tech company wouldn't apply to its use as a fictional character — like the online trading company Robinhood vs. the folklore hero Robin Hood. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jadasc
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 15:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you be more specific about what you mean when you say "not necessarily the same character"? A phrase like that makes me think you're planning a thinly veiled rip-off, not a fundamentally distinct character. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 21:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Vecna" itself was just an anagram of "Vance" (in reference to Jack Vance, whose Dying Earth series used a magic system influenced the magic system of D&D). Why use it yourself, if not to suggest a reference to the existing character? Why not pick an original name, like Khenormos, instead? \$\endgroup\$
    – chepner
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 12:42

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The owners of D&D have never noted or asserted “Vecna” as a trademark

That is, you won’t see “Vecna™” or “Vecna®” anywhere on products by TSR or Wizards of the Coast. Trademarks are kind of funny, though, and they don’t necessarily have to mark something in any way before claiming it as a trademark. Still, companies generally do so for a reason, and claiming something is and always was a trademark when you didn’t mark it as such makes their case much, much harder.

Other, unrelated companies using “Vecna” as a trademark should be irrelevant

Trademarks are primarily meant to avoid confusion about who is responsible for a product; as such, they are limited to similar realms. You can’t make Dove™ soap and you can’t make Dove™ chocolate, but you could name yourself Dove™ in some other industry and neither the soap company nor the chocolate company could (probably) touch you. (And they are separate, independent companies—and each of them has tried to sue the other for trademark violations; both lost.) So Vecna Technologies, Inc.™ isn’t likely to have any claim over anything you do in the role-playing game space. “Dove” is weaker than “Vecna” because the former is a regular English word, but nonetheless, the principle still exists even if it isn’t necessarily quite as strong.

And no, Vecna Technologies, Inc. does not have any (strong) case against Wizards of the Coast over the Vecna name. They’re in completely different fields.

Trademark isn’t the only thing you have to worry about—copyright is more relevant here

Trademark is stuff like company and product names, logos, slogans, that kind of stuff. It’s ways in which a company identifies itself and its products, so that consumers know who they are. Most of the point of trademark is to prevent you from pretending to be them, or confuse people into thinking you are them, or possibly reflect poorly on them by offering inferior products that people think they are responsible for.

Copyright is about protecting their creative works for their own exclusive use, so that they and only they are allowed to leverage them in the marketplace. That’s a lot more relevant here, because copyright includes the exclusive right to “derivative works”—that means, if your work is considered a “derivative work,” they have the right to stop you from distributing it.¹

And that means, if your work is based on theirs—that is, it uses a character from theirs—they can stop you from distributing it. Does having a character use a name that one of theirs uses mean it’s based on that character? If that name is “Dave,” then no, obviously not. If that name is “Vecna,” though... maybe. And they’re both gods? Both evil gods? Maybe both have something to do with magic, or secrets? Now you’re getting onto some very thin ice.

Particularly since a court is going to ask the obvious question: where did you come up with this name from? Why did you decide to use it? If your answers to those questions have anything to do with D&D, you lose. If your answers to those questions sound like you’re trying to make something up to avoid admitting that the real answer is that it came from D&D, there’s a good chance you still lose.

And oh yeah, that would be in court, at least if you attracted Wizards’ notice and they had a problem with what you were doing. Using a unique name like “Vecna” means, at the very least, we’re going to a trial to get these questions answered—Wizards of the Coast has a case, and while you can still defend yourself, the court is going to want to hear that defense and weigh the evidence; they aren’t likely to throw the case out. So even if you really do have a really thorough evidence for your own, independent invention of the “Vecna” name that has nothing to do with D&D, you’re going to have to go to court and show that evidence. Or, more likely, you’re backing down immediately because you can’t afford that.

Nothing can protect you from being sued

This is just reality: suing someone is pretty much the first step. A cease and desist letter is a common pre-suit step, but it’s not formally a part of the lawsuit process—it’s them telling you that they plan to sue you if you don’t cease and desist. They do that because it saves them money. But they don’t have to. Sometimes they just go straight to a lawsuit, and basically nothing can stop them. If their cases is completely nonsensical, it’ll get thrown out, but you’ll still need a lawyer to submit the motion to dismiss the case on the basis that it’s nonsense. And if there’s any kind of potential merit to it, that won’t happen, and now you’re gearing up for a trial and/or haggling over a settlement.

So the best approach is to make sure that if they do bring a case against you, it’ll be nonsense and get thrown out. That will deter most legal departments in most cases because bringing a garbage case can hurt them a lot,² so they won’t even start the process, and it minimizes your vulnerability if they decide to go for it anyway.

Giving them ammunition by using a unique, well-known name that’s widely associated with them, though, that’s not a terribly good idea. I mean, I am all for not creating new de facto rights as part of copyright by asserting your own rights, but this seems very risky to me, for very little gain.

  1. Often misunderstood: you also have copyright to your work that is derivative of someone else’s, and you have the right to stop them from distributing your it just as much as they have the right to stop you from distributing it. In such cases, you either come to an agreement allowing one or the other or maybe both of you to distribute it, or it ends up stuck in limbo, with no one able to legally distribute it, at least until the original copyright expires. Note this only applies to the derivative work—they can continue to distribute their original work that yours is derivative of and you have no rights to stop that.

  2. Just because it hurts them a lot to do it doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you, though. In some cases, you wind up pretty hurt by the nonsense yourself, and whatever pain it causes them is small consolation for your own pain.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nitpick on footnote #1: Under US law, it's a bit muddier than that. The portion of the work that actually infringes is not subject to copyright protection, but the rest might still be protected. In practice, this is such a mess that their lawyers will want an explicit license anyway, but in theory, they don't strictly need one in all cases. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 18:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kevin Interesting; I misunderstood that myself. Patents, I believe, actually do work the way I was suggesting copyright did? Anyway, I’ll amend when I get a chance. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 19:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ A note: There was a trilogy of adventures back in the 2E timeframe that included Vecna in the title: Vecna Lives!, Vecna Reborn and Die Vecna Die!. Titles aren't generally copyrightable on their own, but the repeated use in AD&D product titles does add strength to any trademark claims. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ShadowRanger Indeed; Die, Vecna, Die! was even, oddly enough, a WotC 2e product. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 22:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ This excellent answer could be improved with the usual disclaimer around "this is common wisdom, not legal advice. Only take legal advice from a lawyer you are paying. Do your own research", etc. etc. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 23:44
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Copyright

You can not copyright a name.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section "What Works Are Protected."

The only way the copyright holder in the Vecna character can have a claim is if your character is substantially similar.

Do note that there are 2 well-known Vecnas: the D&D one and the Stranger Things one. As noted, copyright does not extend to the name itself but the whole of the character. I could make a Vecna for my RPG that is a benevolent god of wine, orgies, and green beans, and none of those copyright holders could sue because my character is not substantially similar.

Trademark

Trademarks are an identifier of goods

A word, phrase, design, or a combination that identifies your goods or services, distinguishes them from the goods or services of others, and indicates the source of your goods or services.

Neither character from D&D or Stranger Things serves as an identifier of goods or distinguishing demarkation. Trademark also only is for a specific market. For example, Vecna is registered for 007 Industrial Robots, 009 Automated systems & 012 Robotic transport vehicles by one company, and in 042 consulting services in the field of computer programming and robotic designs by a different company in a different market. Oh and to complicate things, there was also Vecna Medical in 042 by the aforementioned second company.

Conclusion

You can have a character that is called Vecna, but it has to be different from the D&D or Stranger Things one and can't be substantially similar.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Stranger Things almost certainly licensed their use of D&D, though nothing has been said publicly about it. The show runners have said that Wizards of the Coast compiled lore packets for them, and there are Stranger Things-themed D&D products, so they have some form of agreement with one another. But unique names are not so “definitively safe” as you suggest. I can think of immediate examples of large, well-funded companies (Amazon, Valve) changing character names because of copyright claims. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 15:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan that's because it is cheaper to not litigate, even if you win in the end. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Mar 12, 2023 at 16:09

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