Authors Alliance is grateful to Nicolas Charest, Copyright Research Assistant, for researching and drafting this post.
There is longstanding confusion between trademarks and copyrights, which can sometimes lead to controversy in author communities. Notably, in 2018 an author sparked what came to be known as “CockyGate” after she registered a trademark for the word “cocky” in connection with her series of romance novels and asked Amazon.com to take down all romance novels with “cocky” in the title. The trademark application was later surrendered and cancelled following legal proceedings (more details here). More recently, another author sought trademark registration for the word “dark,” used in the titles of a series of her books, though she also later abandoned the application.
In light of these recurring issues, what should authors know about trademarks and copyrights, and how they might apply to their works? We’ve got you covered with this Q&A providing an overview of trademark rights and copyright and how these rights can arise in the publishing industry.
What are copyrights and trademark rights?
Copyright protects original works of expression and gives the author the exclusive rights to reproduce the work, to distribute the work, to prepare derivative works (like translations or movie adaptations), or to perform or display the work publicly. Each of these rights can be transferred by the author to a third party through an assignment or license.
A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, or design (or a combination thereof) that identifies and distinguishes goods from one source from those manufactured or sold by others. Rights in a trademark are used to prevent others from using similar signs that would cause confusion to consumers in the marketplace, helping to avoid situations where products from another vendor would be mistakenly believed to come from the trademark owner or suggest such an association. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), the federal agency responsible for the registration of federal trademarks in the U.S., has adopted the view that the title of a book cannot be registered as a trademark, but the title of a collection or series can. This is because the latter is more likely to identify a source of goods than the former.
Examples of trademarks from the publishing industry include the Penguin Group’s illustration of a black and white penguin on an orange background and the words “For Dummies” in a series of books from Wiley.
What is the purpose of copyrights and trademark rights?
While copyrights and trademarks are both intellectual property rights, they serve markedly different functions in the publishing world. In short, copyright controls the ways a work can be copied, distributed, and adapted, while trademark rights control the use of signs which have become distinctive to a particular author, series, or publisher.
For example, copyright protects the thirteen volumes of Lemony Snicket’s Baudelaire Orphan series, allowing the copyright owner to control the printing and selling of new copies of the books. A copyright owner’s rights are said to be “infringed” if someone exercises one or more of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights—by reproducing one of the books in the series, for example—without authorization or a copyright exception covering that use.
The trademarks “A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS” (TM Reg No. 2732326) and “LEMONY SNICKET” (TM Reg No. 5432563), on the other hand, give the trademark owner the right to prevent others from using these word signs in contexts that would cause consumer confusion as to the source or affiliation of the goods sold under the mark. This gives consumers assurance that books marked as being part of the “Series of Unfortunate Events” come from the author, Daniel Handler, publishing under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, and indicates to potential readers that any books bearing the mark will be of the same literary quality and style as the other books in the series.
Trademarks are not limited to words. For instance, the exterior appearance of a collection of books can be a distinguishing sign that indicates a source and could be considered a trademark, over which the editor or publisher could claim trademark rights. Examples of such abound, including the recognizable layout of the paperback Penguin Classics collection and the Aspen Casebook Series, which the editor says is “famously known amongst law faculty and students as the ‘red and black’ casebooks.”
An author or publisher may wish to secure a trademark as an indicator of source to protect the goodwill created by the works of the author and to prevent other from usurping the reputation of the author.
How are copyrights and trademark rights obtained?
Under today’s copyright laws, copyright protection for original, creative works is automatic from the moment the work is “fixed in a tangible medium” (e.g., as soon as the author puts pen to paper, paintbrush to canvas, or saves a computer file). Although authors do not need to register their works in order to enjoy the protection of copyright law, registration with the United States Copyright Office has several benefits which make it an advantageous practice. Authors interested in the advantages of registering a copyright in their work can read our blog post Why Register Your Copyright.
“Common law” trademark rights can arise based solely on the use of a mark in commerce where it is used as source identifier over a period of time and consumers recognize the mark as indicative of the specific source. However, like copyright, there are significant benefits to registering the work with the USPTO, including: a legal presumption of your ownership of the mark and your exclusive right to use the mark nationwide on or in connection with the goods listed in the registration; public notice of your claim of ownership of the mark; listing in the USPTO’s online databases; and the ability to bring an action concerning the mark in federal court. Federal trademark applications can be filed on the basis of the mark being used in commerce in connection with the goods specified or on and “intent-to-use” basis. A registration of a trademark at the state level is also available, though the protection that it offers is limited to that state only.
How long do copyright and trademark protection last?
Under current copyright law in the United States, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Rights in a federally registered trademark can last indefinitely if you continue to use the mark and file all necessary maintenance documents with the USPTO. Common law trademark rights can continue as long as the sign remains distinctive.