Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB
A writer friend asked me recently whether she could use the title of a particular popular song. It was no longer at the top of the charts, but the name would certainly be recognizable. I almost invariably get asked copyright questions when I begin teaching another writing class. Newbies are obsessed with copyright — what they can and can’t do or use. Who might try to “steal” their work. What recourse they have if/when their “idea” is stolen by someone.
On this particular occasion, I told the writer that titles cannot be copyrighted. You could name your book The Great Gatsby or Gone with the Wind, though I wouldn’t recommend it. They wouldn’t sue you for use of the name, but it would be very misleading to possible readers.
Brian Klems, the online editor for Writer’s Market, wrote in a blog last February that titles, names, slogans, ideas and titles cannot be copyrighted. The reason for that is works need to possess what is known as “a significant amount of original expression” within the work in order to qualify for copyright. Something as short as any of the above types of writing would not qualify. I’m appreciative of having online “friends” like Brian — it gives me a source to check when questions come up and I’m not sure how to explain the answer, or I need examples. Check him out online.
He also referred, as I have done in the past a few times, to using something like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as being an exception. When series have a recognizable and especially reused portion to a title (which could be seen to move into “original expression” territory, I surmise) they can be trademarked, whether they be words, phrases, symbols, or designs used to distinguish them from other similar works or items. He specified things like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, or the Encyclopedia Brown books, etc. We could all wish our next series would do so well that it could be designated as having a recognizable “brand”.
A very general title, with undistinguished word choices, like One Moment in Time [Klem’s example], that doesn’t really separate it from others with the same or similar words, so you’re probably within your rights. The Da Vinci Code? Too specific to an associated best seller . . . try something else.
You might want to steer clear of using a title — even when it’s fairly innocuous in its wording — in the same genre as your work. You can always leave such a choice up to your editor; but, if you are self‑publishing, be wary. Another reason to avoid reusing someone else’s title/words/ideas would be to create clarity. Why get your work confused in a possible reader’s mind with something else when s/he walks into the book store down the street? Make the work uniquely YOURS.
See you day‑after‑tomorrow for Sunday’s Snippets!