A little behind-the-scenes: at my current job, I have access to scripts for new shows. I’m allowed to read them, although no one really cares what I think about them. One of our new shows is still working out their distribution and also has me on the list for outlines. This was a show with a particularly intriguing pilot, so when we got the outline for the second episode and I had a few moments, I read it. (Incidentally, it’s good. I don’t think I’m allowed to tell you which show it is, but be hopeful for the future of television anyway.) But I did come across a line describing a character as someone who quotes a lot of song lyrics from particular bands. As a writer, this is a great characterization. It gets across that the character is something of a geek, and what specific kind of geek, with very little effort. But I had to alert my boss so we could warn them they can’t do that. If a song lyric is specific and recognizable, the show would have to pay to license the song just as if they’d played it. (Ex.: “You did it your way and I did it my way.” = fine. “Like Old Blue Eyes said, I did it my way.” = paying enormous license fees.) We don’t expect writers to know this. But it’s one more thing added onto the network notes that the writers will need to address.
New writers often ask how shows come up with character names. The answer starts with “the same way you do:” something sounds right, or you go through the phone book, or look up what baby names were popular when your character was born, or just go with a grade-school crush. (My middle and last names have been used as bit-characters on a couple of shows I’ve worked on or near. I love it!) When the script is actually being produced, it will get sent to a legal clearance company who will go over it with a fine-toothed comb. They will check name listings against the location your script is set in and professions your characters may have. If your script describes a “Dr. Miller of Dearborn, MI” and it turns out there is a Dr. Miller in Dearborn, you will be sent a note asking to change it. If, however, there are a few dozen Dr. Millers in Dearborn, you will be in the clear. They just have to make sure there’s isn’t one person who can claim defamation based on whatever you write. So very common names or very obscure names are usually safe.
What does this mean for your spec? Well… not a lot. This is one of those times when you want to write whatever is the best possible version of the script, and these rules have nothing to do with making your script better. They just make the script usable. And there’s a whole bunch of other people whose jobs it is to go through and make sure your script is usable. You don’t have to do their job for them. You just have to nod and make the changes when they tell you to. And know that really, we wish your character could speak in song lyrics. That would be great. But he can’t, so you have to find another way. Fortunately, you’re already being paid a lot of money by the time we’ve told you this, which should be some consolation.