Can You Copyright a Title?

Q: I’ve been working on a book and the title is very important—I use it as the URL for my blog, for a weekly column I write, etc., and I want people to identify it with me. Can I copyright a title so others can’t use it? –Anonymous

A: Copyrights cover works fixed in a tangible format, but because titles are typically short, they don’t fall under copyright protection. So no, you can’t copyright a title to a book, song or movie. But you can trademark a title, which may give you the protection you seek.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office states that a trademark protects words, phrases, symbols or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others. Brand names like Pepsi, Xerox and Band-Aid are all protected. So is the Nike “swoosh.”  But more relevant to us, book titles such as The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone are trademarked.

Unlike copyright protection, which is granted the minute your work is written down, trademarks aren’t handed out so freely. In fact, if the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office doesn’t consider your title (or brand) a distinctive mark that is indisputably distinguishable from others, you will not be granted trademark protection. This is why you see so many books with the same—or very similar—titles. Many of the terms are considered too generic or arbitrary to warrant protection.

Trademarks are not only intended to protect the creator, but also the consumer. Trademarks keep others from confusing a well-known work on the bookstore shelves with others. For example, Harry Potter is such a popular, distinguishable character by J.K. Rowling that you’d expect any title with his name in it to be written by her (or, at least, a book approved by her). It’s not only her work, but it’s become her brand.

So if you use the title of your book as the title of your blog, column, etc., it could be considered your brand identifier. And if you find success, you could qualify for trademark protection.

Brian A. Klems is the online community editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwmedia.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line.

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