As I discovered when working with Eve Abbott on How to Do Space Age Work with a Stone Age Brain™, the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) includes books in the class of “paper goods.” Whether or not that classification represents an accurate definition of a book in the 21st century, it’s one of the hardest to qualify for. The applicant has to be using the “mark”—that is, the book title—for at least three different products in that class. They could be a series of books, or a book, a workbook, and a supplement to the book, or a series of books, but there’s not really a way to protect the title of a single book, either through trademark or through copyright.
The same is true for films. It can be confusing at times, if more than one book or film (or CD, for that matter) of the same name becomes famous. Still, the pool of possible titles would be extremely limited if everyone had to search the trademark database before coming up with a book title, especially since many books with the same title are in completely different genres and wouldn’t directly compete with one another, no matter what the USPTO might think.
Still, if you can come up with a unique title for your book, it’s an advantage. It doesn’t hurt to check Amazon.com or Books in Print to see whether anyone has published a book with your number one choice of title in the past 10 years.
It’s also good to remember that your publisher may change your book’s title, so there’s no point filing for a trademark until after you have a contract.
Post adapted from the answer to a LinkedIn question on March 23, 2008.