Can a Single Word Be Copyrighted?

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Can a single word be copyrighted? Copyright law can be complicated, and in many cases, people don’t understand the differences between copyright, trademark and patent. For example, people often find that when comparing trademark vs. copyright that the two are very different in terms of what they cover and apply to.

Copyright is primarily meant to cover creative works, while trademark covers a word, phrase, symbol or design. A patent, in contrast, is a property right claim on an invention.

A copyright covers creative works, meaning works of authorship that include literary, musical, dramatic and artistic pieces. As such, copyright cannot be applied to a word, even a proper name.

The copyright office specifically states that names are not covered by copyright law, even when the name applies to a group, like a band.

In fact, the copyright office has a long list of things that are not covered by copyright. This list includes recipes, domain names, titles, slogans, short phrases, ideas and sightings. Recipes may be covered when they're part of a literary work, such as a book meant to explain the preparation of the recipe.

In other cases, some of the things not covered by copyright may be covered by a trademark. As such, there are no copyrighted words, though a trademark may cover specific names.

The Basics of Trademarks

A trademark does cover words, phrases, symbol, designs – or a combination of all those features. Not just any words can be trademarked, however. The trademark needs to something that identifies and distinguishes one type of good from another.

In the area of soft drinks, for example, Coca-Cola is trademarked to distinguish its type of soda product from others.

The likeliness of a trademark being issued relies on whether what is being trademarked can be confused with another, similar product. A trademark will typically only be issued when the mark is being issued to something that has a certain degree of uniqueness.

If the marks are similar and the goods or services are in the same industry, such as soda, the trademark will likely be rejected. On the other hand, words, phrases, symbols and designs that are similar to an existing brand can be trademarked if they exist in a different industry.

Similarity in trademarks can occur for a number of reasons. Returning to the example of Coca-Cola, someone would not be able to get the word Cooca-Cola trademarked because it would be too similar to the existing product in the beverage field.

This would be the case even if the font style was dramatically different in the trademark. Consequently, before requesting a trademark on a word, it’s important to consider whether it will be similar to a trademark that already exists.

Applying for a Trademark

The trademark application process can be completed online at the United States Patent Trademark Office’s website. Beside the initial application forms, there are forms specific to certain types of trademark.

These forms include:

  • Response forms
  • Intent-to-use (ITU) forms
  • Post-approval/publication/post-notice of allowance (NOA) amendment forms
  • Correspondence and attorney/domestic representative forms
  • Petition forms
  • Miscellaneous forms
  • Registration maintenance/renewal/correction forms
  • Assignment forms
  • Trademark Trial and Appeal Board forms
  • Madrid Protocol forms

These specific forms can be used to file for everything from changes of address to appeals of trademark decisions.

Because each form can accomplish multiple things, it’s best to research each form individually on the USPTO trademark application website. When you file, you’ll want to know what mark you want to register and work with your assigned USPTO examining attorney to get the trademark process completed.

After approval, remember to monitor your registration every few months to make sure your trademark is alive.

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