Copyright vs. Trademark for Indie Authors

Saul Bottcher,—Updated 12 September 2014

Note: This article is provided as general information and is not intended as legal advice. If you have questions about your individual legal situation, please consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction.

Copyright vs. Trademark

Many authors know that copyrights and trademarks are two forms of protection for intellectual property, but aren’t necessarily clear on the differences between the two. This article gives a simple summary of the two concepts.

What is Copyright?

Copyright protects an author’s economic and moral rights to a creative work. For authors, the creative work in question is the text of their manuscript—not the ideas, plot, or character names, but the text itself; the words arranged in their particular order by the author.

The author’s economic rights give them the ability to profit from the work by controlling who can publish, distribute, broadcast, and copy the work. The author’s moral rights protect the integrity of the work (preventing it from being distorted) and the authorship (acknowledgement of who wrote it).

(For a complete overview of copyright, see Copyright 101 for Indie Authors.)

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is a protected mark or name used to identify a product. Trademarks prevent imitation products from ‘piggybacking’ on the name or appearance of a popular brand. They can also help consumers recognize different products from the same producer.

Indie authors don’t often deal with trademarks, but trademarks do play a role in writing and publishing. For example, an author could trademark the title of a series, a character, or a world, so that only they can market books using that name. (Tom Clancy’s Net Force and Harry Potter are examples of trademarked names.)

How Do I Register a Copyright or Trademark?

Copyrights are granted automatically to the author from the moment the creative work is set in a tangible form (for example, typed into a word processor). No registration is required, though in some countries, registering copyright can confer extra rights or privileges.

Unlike copyright, trademarks are not granted automatically. A person must apply to register a trademark, and once granted, it is typically required that the trademark holder make active use of the trademark for the registration to remain valid (exact laws vary by country).

How Do Copyrights and Trademarks Help Me?

Copyrights give you creative and business control over your work. Your copyrights are what allow you to legally enter into publishing and distribution agreements, to control who creates adaptations of your work, and to demand compensation if someone profits from your work without your permission.

Copyrights apply across mediums, meaning that a copyrighted text cannot be adapted into a film or stage play without the author's permission.

Trademarks allow you to protect a unique name or logo that you use when marketing your work. Some indie authors will have no use for trademarks in the course of their career. If you write a successful series, you may find some benefit in trademarking the series name.

Trademarks have a limited scope: they only apply within your particular market. Registering a trademark for your book series does not prevent a household goods company from using the same name for their new laundry detergent, since no confusion between the products would be likely to occur. (However, there are other laws that prevent the household goods company from implying that you endorse their detergent, or that it is tied in to your book somehow.)

Copyright or Trademark?

Use this table to get a quick answer as to whether something is subject to copyright protection or trademark protection. (Keep in mind, these are general answers. You should always get legal advice for your specific situation if you are facing an important decision.)

Text of a manuscriptcopyright(The text is a creative work fixed in tangible form.)
Unpublished drafts of a manuscriptcopyrightCopyrights are granted regardless of whether a work is published.
Story elements (plot, setting)neitherIdeas on their own are not subject to copyright.
Title of one booktrademarkRare. Might be used if creating tie-in merchandise for a single book.
Title of a seriestrademark(The series title is a name used to market a line of products.)
Name of a charactertrademarkUncommon. Used if a series revolves around a character, e.g. Harry Potter.
Original term or phrasetrademarkRare. One example is the term ‘droids’ from Star Wars.
Name of a publishing imprinttrademark(A name used to market a line of products.)
Cover design/illustrationcopyrightCould belong to either the author or the designer; always know which.
Interior illustrationcopyrightCould belong to either the author or the illustrator; always know which.
Series logobothThe image is a creative work, and is being used to identify a product.

As a rule of thumb, remember that copyright protects creative works while trademarks help to identify products.

Summary of Differences

Use this table as a quick reminder of the differences between trademarks and copyrights.

What does it apply to?Creative works (e.g. texts)Names, symbols, and designs
What does it protect?Economic and moral rightsUnique identification (prevent impostors)
How is it granted?Automatically on creationBy registration only
What is the scope?Protects across all mediumsProtects only within a specific market
‘Use it or lose it’?NoYes

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