The licensing of cartoon images and the merchandising of products based on them are often multimillion-dollar businesses for large corporations. You can register your cartoon or comic strip either as a visual art or a literary work, depending on whether the images or the text predominate. If you are the copyright owner of a cartoon character, you have the exclusive right to use, reproduce or distribute your copyrighted work and the right to authorize others to do so. Additionally, you may be able to protect your cartoon characters by applying for trademark protection.
When a Cartoon Character Is Copyright-Protected
Your original cartoon character is automatically copyrighted when it is “created” or “fixed” in a permanent form. It's considered “fixed” when it can be seen, such as when it's drawn on paper or in a computer program. You do not need to publish the cartoon to have it copyright protected. Although your cartoon character is theoretically copyright-protected as soon as it is “fixed,” you may not be able to enforce your copyright unless you register your work.
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Copyright Registration Process
Registration is not required for copyright protection, but if you haven’t registered your cartoon character, you can't file a copyright infringement suit if someone uses your cartoon character without your permission. To apply for copyright registration, you must file a completed application, a fee and copies of the cartoon character that you're registering with the U.S. Copyright Office. Which copies you need to file and how many, depend on whether the character was published and, if so, when and where your character was first published. You can apply for registration online at the U.S. Copyright Office’s website or with a paper application by mail. If approved, you will get a certificate of registration. Otherwise, you will get an explanation of why your application was rejected.
A copyright protects the images and writings in your cartoon or comic strip but not the title, the general theme, the general idea, the names of your characters or their intangible attributes. However, state or federal trademark laws might protect the character, titles and names of characters. A trademark differs from a copyright in that it is a word, phrase, symbol or design that is used to identify the source of a product, whereas a copyright protects an original work of authorship. In the case of a cartoon character, the trademark would protect the cartoon itself.
Trademark Registration Process
If you decide you need trademark protection, you may want to hire an attorney to do a complete search of federal and state trademark registrations as well as “common law” unregistered trademarks, which could prevent you from using your mark. The attorney could also help with filing the application and responding to any rejection of your application. To register your cartoon character as a trademark, you need to file an application online and pay the application fee. If your application is rejected, you will receive a letter explaining the reasons -- and have six months to reply. If your application is approved, you will get a notice of publication of your trademark and, if you are already using your mark in commerce, a registration certificate. If your application is denied after you replied to the first rejection, you will receive a letter of final refusal.
- U.S. Copyright Office: Cartoons and Comic Strips
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Basics
- The United States Patent and Trademark Office: Trademark, Patent, or Copyright?
- Gisselberg Law Firm: Trademark Protection for Cartoon Characters
- The United States Patent and Trademark Office: What a Private Attorney Could Do to Help Avoid Potential Pitfalls
- The United States Patent and Trademark Office: Trademark Process
Eden Straten has extensive experience in the legal and educational fields. She holds a Juris Doctor from Boston University and has been licensed to practice law for more than 20 years.