Can a Book Title be Copyrighted?

copyright symbol in chains
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A great title can make a book. If you are writing a book and you have an idea for a title, you probably are searching to see if anyone else has your title. If no one has your book title, you may want to protect it by copyrighting it. Well, you can't do that. But there's an alternative.

Copyright vs. Trademark

First, consider the difference between copyrights and trademarks. Copyrights protect original works of authorship, including books, plays, movies, music, poetry, song, computer software, and architecture.

Trademarks protect words, phrases, symbols, and/or designs that set apart the goods of one party from those of others. A service mark is the same thing for services. 

One big difference between copyrights and trademarks is that you can have copyright protection as soon as the work is published, but you must register and get approval to have trademark protection.

Book Titles Typically Can't Be Copyrighted

The U. S. Copyright Office is the U.S. agency that processes and registers copyright applications. Copyright doesn't protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases. That includes domain names, which are assigned by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), through accredited registers.

Book titles are among the list of things that can't be copyrighted. Titles aren't considered intellectual property but are only "short phrases," which are not eligible to be copyrighted. The Copyright Office doesn't want titles to be restricted to one book; there may be other works in which the title may be equally usable and appropriate.

An Example: McGraw Hill published a book titled PT 109: John Kennedy in World War II and they attempted to bar Random House from publishing a book titled John F Kennedy & PT 109. The case was taken to court, which found that the words "PT 109" and "John Kennedy" were descriptive or generic terms and therefore not able to be copyrighted. The Court said, "no one has a right to avail himself of another's favorable reputation in order to sell his own goods." 

Another Example: Garden of Beasts

In another example, in 2004, Jeffrey Deaver wrote a book titled "Garden of Beasts," a novel set in Berlin around the time of the 1936 Olympics.

More recently, in 2011 Erik Larsen wrote a non-fiction book set in Berlin in the same time period. Its title is "In the Garden of Beasts." Since Deaver could not copyright his title, we are left with two books with almost identical titles, to confuse us. 

Other Things You Cannot Copyright

Just to be clear, here are some other things you cannot copyright: 

  • Names of products or services
  •  Names of businesses, organizations, or groups (including the names of performing groups) 
  • Pseudonyms of individuals (including pen or stage names)
  • Titles of works
  • Catchwords, catchphrases, mottoes, slogans, or short advertising expressions
  • Listings of ingredients, as in recipes, labels, or formulas. When a recipe or formula is accompanied by an explanation or directions, the text directions may be copyrightable, but the recipe or formula itself remains uncopyrightable.

An Alternative: Trademarking a Book Title

A trademark is more difficult to get than a copyright, but you might be able to trademark a book title. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is the federal agency that processes and approves trademark applications.

Even if you can't copyright a book title, or the other items listed above, you may be able to register the title as a trademark. The trademark office looks at whether your trademark might be confused with an existing trademark. For example, "Chicken Soup for the Soul" is a registered trademark, as is the "Dummies" series of books. 

In another example, Fox News trademarked the term "Fair and Balanced" in 1998, but they can't stop someone from using that term in a book title, as Al Franken did in his book: "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."

Writers Digest says, "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."

Before You Copyright or Trademark, Do a Search

You don't have to do a search to see if your work has already been copyrighted, because it is unique to you. But if you want to use a book title, you should first check (online) to see if anyone else has used that title. If the title has been used in a similar book, you might still want to use it. Or you may want to change it to avoid confusion by readers.

If you want to see if a title has been trademarked, you can use TESS, the online search at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Then you can start the trademark process. 

You may be able to copyright your work yourself, but it's better to have an intellectual property attorney to help you with a trademark application. Having an attorney who is familiar with trademarks can considerably improve your chances of getting through the trademark or copyright process more quickly and easily.