Can You Trademark a Book Title?


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 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.

What’s the Best Way to Protect Electronic Documents from Being Copied?

Jean-Louis Potier asked this question on LinkedIn:

What is the best solution for securing from all saving and copying techniques in the publishing industry without damaging the reader experience (exemple an e-newsletter)?

There isn’t one. In general, DRM (digital rights management) interferes far more with the experience of honest people than with criminals. There’s not much a professional hacker couldn’t crack and redistribute; the Home Shoplifting Network on Usenet is proof of that.

You can use secured PDFs to prevent people from printing, editing, and copying, and then only a really determined person will take a screen shot, scan it in, run it through Optical Character Recognition, and go merrily ahead and do all the things you were trying to prevent. PDF security is at least fairly unobtrusive, and it’s generally a good idea to use, but the best it can do is make copying the file more troublesome.

But the only things that would come close to providing you with unbreakable security would make it so difficult to access the information that people probably won’t bother trying, or they’ll spend more time complaining about the DRM than taking whatever action you wanted them to take as a result of reading your newsletter.

The best thing is probably to establish your brand and style in such a way that people will automatically recognize the content as yours if someone tries to pass off a copy. (And there are ways to track where your articles show up; for help see Plagiarism Today.)

Word of the Day: Transcraping

The other day I posted some of my Podcast Asylum articles on Within an hour of their approval, the Google alert I have set on my own name produced a link to a post entitled “Der Podcast Von Meiner Unzufriedenheit.” For those who don’t read German, that’s “The Podcast of My Discontent.”

More like the blog posting of my discontent, since it was my own article, “Podcasting without Podcasting,” translated into German and posted without the resource box linking back to my site—but with my copyright notice and name still on it. My German is rusty, and was never colloquial, so I couldn’t really tell whether there had been human hands involved in the translation process. It surely seemed like a human mind behind the title, and German is a very literal sort of language.

So I asked the Ur-Guru, whose German is better than mine. (Dutch is very similar to German, too, so that probably helps him get a better feel for the rhythm of the language.) He assured me that it was a computer translation and no human had been involved, and I shouldn’t bother posting a comment on the blog. (Which I had already done by that time.)

I’ve had material stolen and posted to splogs (spam blogs created to generate AdSense revenue) before, but usually it’s a couple of paragraphs combined with material scraped from other people’s blogs, combined into a mishmash that makes no sense at all but apparently contains some useful keywords.

This is the first time (to my knowledge) that my material was not merely appropriated but also translated into another language. Hence “Transcraping.”

It’s difficult to prevent that kind of thing from happening, and not usually worth the effort to try protecting one’s intellectual property, especially when I’ve made the article available for reprint free of charge. And anyone reading the German would figure out who the author was, regardless of the poster’s name. (Actually, any German speaker would probably have a fit laughing at the auto-translation.) And there probably aren’t many actual readers of splogs anyway—just bots committing click-fraud.

Then Donna Papacosta, my fellow podcasting “professor,” discovered that the article had been translated back out of German into English. Now we could fall about laughing at the way “you feel as though you really know them” became “you experience as though you really cognize them,” not to mention the way Heidi Miller became “Heidi Glenn Miller.” (An extra keyword, perhaps? A sex change Heidi didn’t tell me about?)

Mostly I laughed. But the thing is, my name is still on that article, and I work as a professional writer. As the Ur-Guru pointed out, “If someone were to take ‘Comments are male monarch in the human race of podcasting’ as your writing, it would not be good advertising for the Author-izer.”

No, it certainly wouldn’t, though I like to think my potential clients are sophisticated enough to be suspicious of English that unnatural. At least I haven’t (yet) experienced the problem some of my fellow writers have, that of someone stealing just your name and putting it on his or her own articles in order to borrow credibility.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no other Sallie Goetsch on the planet, which means that if you do a search on my name, what comes up is either me or someone (or thing) impersonating me. And at least the first thing that comes up on a Google search is my own website.

But if you read something strange-seeming with my name appended to it, check with me before you accept it as genuine.