Thursday, May 24, 2012
Much Ado About Nothing
For two reasons.
First, I'm not sure they had copyrights in Shakespeare's day. Even if they did, his copyright would have expired by now.
Second, you can't copyright titles, names, short phrases, and slogans. You can trademark them, but that's a different post.
The reason is simple. The fewer words you use, the greater the chances that people have used the exact same word or word combination in the past. Copyright only protects that which is original.
Names are a good example.
When Bernard Clare discovered that his name was the title of a book, he sued.* The author had never heard of him, so Clare lost. Mark Twain used the name "Eschol Sellers" in the first printing of The Gilded Age, and an Eschol Sellers who Twain knew nothing about appeared and threatened to file a lawsuit.** Because Twain had bad luck with lawyers, he changed the name for subsequent printings rather than risk a court battle that he should have won.
While these two situations involved defamation rather than copyright infringement, they show how hard it is to find a unique name. The same is true of titles, short phrases, and slogans. This is why copyright does not protect them.
So if someone complains that you have "stolen" the title of his book, just tell him that he is making much ado about nothing.
Kathryn Page Camp
* Clare v. Ferrell, 70 F.Supp. 276 (D.Minn. 1947).
** Twain, Mark, Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Harriet Elinor Smith, Vol. 1 (Berkley: University of California Press, 2010), 207.