Copyright a name, or is it trademark a name?

COPYRIGHT A NAMEIntellectual property has 3 main categories, copyright, trademark, and patents. When someone is looking to “copyright a name” they most likely mean they are looking to protect the name itself as a brand, which would be a trademark.

  • Copyright: protects artistic works fixed in a tangible medium (books, movies, songs, paintings).
  • Trademark: protects any unique identifier in relation to goods/services (names of businesses, brands, slogans, logos, NBC chime).
  • Patent: protects any idea (gadgets, doohickeys, new type of lightbulb)

How do I copyright a name?

You can’t.  But you can trademark a name.  There are a number of ways you can trademark a name.

  • Common law usage: just start using the name in commerce.  Once used, you’ve established common law rights.  Common law trademark rights attach once a business uses a name in relation to their goods/services (essentially when it opens).  Common law trademark rights are based on prior use an geographic location.  If you’ve opened a candle store in New York, NY called WICKIT CANDLES and you were the first to use the name in relation to those services you will automatically retain common law rights to the geographic area in which consumers recognize your trademark.
  • State trademark registration: you’ll need to apply through your state’s Secretary of State Office. This will give you state protection, and ability to sue for statutory damages based on state code.
  • Federal trademark registration: Simply the best. US federal trademark registration protects your trademark nationwide.  Not only does this protect you from US businesses but also protects you from foreign businesses looking to sell their goods/services in the US.

But seriously, is it possible to copyright a name?

So if I file to copyright a name with the US Copyright Office what happens? You can apply for artistic works that feature specific phrases, but that will not protect you from others using those specific phrases. Your artistic work will be protected but the words featured in the design will not be protected. For example, if I have a Christmas sweater design that features a Picasso-esk snowman and has the words, “Merry Snowman,” I am not protected from other businesses using the name “Merry Snowman.”  There is one exception, text works (books, lyrics, screen play, script). Copyright to text works protect the written works themselves.  However, this would not apply to names or phrases used to identify a business.

  • No. You can’t copyright a name.
  • You can copyright written artistic works (like books), but not names or phrases.

Okay, how should I trademark a business name?

While you can’t copyright a business name, you can trademark a business name. The best practice is to hire a trademark lawyer to file the trademark on your behalf.  In fact, you will increase your odds of a successful federal trademark registration by doing so.  If willing to risk it, you can also file the trademark on your own behalf by filing through the USPTO database. You can find the online filing system here: USPTO Trademark Filing System.