Thursday, May 24, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing

Are you wagging your finger at me and saying, "Shakespeare used that title, so you can't"? If so, you are wrong.

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.


  1. "In 2005, Christians who attended church regularly earned more than $2-trillion but donated less than 1 percent of that figure to charitable causes. Christian churches generally advocate tithing about 10 percent of one's annual income each year."

    You haven't become any more generous since then.

    CHRISTIANS, YOU OWE THE LORD $198 BILLION!!! If you're broke because of our economic downturn, maybe you should learn who's behind it. It's been their agenda for LITERALLY centuries:

  2. Kathryn, thanks for the reminder. I know a well known author titled one of her books the same as one of my manuscripts and I thought at the time that it would be hard to sell it under that name. lol but time has passed and I still have that ms. so by now it probably won't matter at all.

  3. Excellent reminder.

    Examples of this are how many songs share titles but have nothing in common. I know of many songs called "I Need You," "Here I Am," and "Praise The Lord." In fact, I borrowed the title "Second Hand News" from Fleetwood Mac for a song I wrote which happens to be my favorite -- the only thing in common is the title.

    There are also movies that share titles, as well as books. For example, "The Illusionist" is the name of a 2007 live action movie starring Edward Norton and an animated 2010 film.


  4. Isn't it nice to have something in the publishing world simple? Thanks, Kathryn.

  5. I love your posts, Kathryn! Thanks. :)