How to protect a book title

A client of mine is planning on releasing a new book with a clever title. He asked “How can I protect the title so no one else can publish a book with the same title?”

“You can’t,” I responded. (That didn’t make him happy.)

You cannot copyright a book title. It is too short.

You cannot trademark a book title.

The result is that there are often books with the same title.

Groundswell is a book on social media. It is also a novel about surfing, a book on landscape architecture, a book on activism, and a book about fracking.

My author client, who is likely self-publishing, suggested we should request the ISBN (a unique number identifying the book) and put up an Amazon listing as soon as possible. I counseled against it. You want to create and time that listing carefully. And doing this would provide no protection. Somebody else could publish a different book with the same title and ISBN, because creating the ISBN does not protect the title in any way.

Things are not hopeless, though. Two sorts of protections are available — one legal, and a second far more effective and practical.

Books and trademarks

What you are about to read is not official legal advice, and I am not a lawyer. This reflects my personal experience. If you want to follow it, I suggest contacting a publishing lawyer.

To understand trademark protections, you need to know that trademarks protect use in a specific category, like business services or sports equipment. This is why there can be a Thomson’s Water Seal for protecting decks and an International Thomson Publishing. No one is going to confuse the two.

And there is no trademark category called “book” to protect.

However, there are two circumstances in which you can trademark a book title, or at least part of a book title.

You can trademark an identifier for a series of books. For example, this is what Wiley has done with “For Dummies,” a series that now ranges from Adoption for Dummies to Yoga for Dummies. Similarly, the authors of Freakonomics have trademarked it as a series of books.

Alternatively, you can trademark a product or service that has the same name as the book. For example, I have trademarked “Without Bullshit.” (It was a pain because it had a curse word in it and had to wait on a Supreme Court decision; don’t ask.) That trademark is for my blog and for the services I offer to authors. It doesn’t specifically cover the book.

As you can see, these protections are flawed. Your product or service trademark won’t stop someone from creating a book with the same title. And unless you are creating a series, you can’t trademark a book series.

The only real protection is to brand yourself

How do you protect a book title? By owning it. I don’t mean financially. I mean in the world of public opinion and influence that affects your audience.

How do you do that? Here are some ideas:

  • Make sure you’re not competing with another book with the same title. When I work with people on title development, the first thing I do with a candidate title is to search Amazon. A recently published book with the same title in the same category would create too much confusion, so you have to find a different title. The same applies if there is a book in a related category (say, another business book) that was very popular.(I don’t recommend calling your next book The World is Flat). If all the books with the same title are old, unpopular, or unrelated, then you’re likely to be able to move forward without creating confusion.
  • Come up with a good subtitle. The title and subtitle together will establish your book’s content and perspective.
  • Stake out spaces on platforms. Find a good URL (the book’s actual title may not be available as a dot com, but that’s not a deal-breaker). Look at Twitter and Instagram handles. See what happens when you do a Google search on the title. This is your chance to lay the groundwork to rank in those searches in the future.
  • Get your Amazon page up. As my author client suggested, this is useful. Get help to do it right if you’re self-publishing, or get your publisher involved if you have one. But recognize that this only offers protection in the context of all the other activity I’ve described here.
  • Create a book site or microsite. Whether the book has its own site or is part of your broader site, make sure the book has a home online.
  • Start blogging, podcasting, and posting. This is your chance to associate the title with you and your ideas. (It’s content marketing, of course.) It requires long, persistent, and repeated effort. But creating a name for yourself and associating it with your book title is the only real way to create a defensible platform and protect your book and title. It’s also the best way to enhance your rankings for the title on Google.
  • Pursue bylined articles and other platforms. Write for publications, get interviewed by podcasters, post on LinkedIn and Medium. Get the word out. While you can do the blogs and podcasts before the book is published, this additional activity is typically part of a bigger publicity push around the book’s publication date.

That sounds like work, doesn’t it.

It is. But protecting your title isn’t a matter of a legal filing. It’s a matter of establishing your book and its title and idea in the marketplace. That’s a lot more defensible than trying to put a little “TM” next to your book title.

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