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Ask Author Law

Does my catchy title present a trademark problem?

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. Readers are reminded that this information is for general information only and that any specific legal problems should be discussed with an attorney. Questions are presented anonymously, with the asker’s privacy protected. Some are composites based on issues I have been asked about in the past. Some were asked at workshops and conferences where I have presented. If you have a question for this blog, leave a comment below or send it to Authorlaw@yahoo.com. Your question may be edited or combined with others. I cannot answer questions privately and not all questions can be used, but I’ll try to give full coverage to the matters that writers care about most. Ask Author Law is published for information only. Answers are not legal advice. Asking and/or answering a question does not create a lawyer/client relationship. The solutions to legal problems depend entirely on the specifics of the situation, so any writer in need of legal advice should consult privately with a qualified attorney.

Q: I'm writing a book with a catchy, appropriate title and just discovered that an organization in another state uses the exact same words as the name of their ongoing workshop. In their promo literature they have a tiny "sm" (service mark) next to their name. Am I out of luck? Does this mean I now have to come up with a new title or ask this organization to give me permission to use their workshop program name as the title of my book?

A: This is one of those questions to which the answer is a resounding “it depends.” There are many factors to consider as you decide what to do. The answer depends on whether those looking at the book would assume sponsorship by, endorsement of, or affiliation with the organization. You should ask yourself whether people buying your book might assume that you represent or support the organization and its point of view. If the answer is yes, then you should probably find another title or get the organization’s permission to use the title. Another possibility is to use the title with a disclaimer that says your book is not associated in any way with the organization.

If your book is going to receive nationwide distribution and the subject is similar to the subject of the organization’s workshop, there could very well be a potential problem of trademark infringement and you would probably be wise to change the title. If your book, however, covers a different topic from the organization’s workshop or the organization operates in only a small geographical area and isn’t widely known outside of its home turf, then you might not have a problem. In that case you would be wise to ask an attorney to have a trademark search performed. Such a search will identify whether the organization has taken steps to register its service mark at the federal level for workshops or services that might be similar to the topic of your book. If it has taken such steps, you’ll probably decide to change the title in order to avoid a potential trademark infringement problem.

A third factor to consider is how common and generic your proposed title is. If it’s distinctive and closely associated with the organization, you should probably not use it. If it’s based on a common phrase and accurately describes your book’s content, it’s less likely to be a problem. If you really want to use this title and you’re not confident about the potential implications, you might want to confer with a trademark attorney.

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