What Writers & Novelists Should Know About Trademark Protection?

Unlike copyrights, writers can use trademarks to protect their work indefinitely. Fictional character and publisher names can be trademarked, but not book titles. Consulting an IP lawyer is vital for navigating this landscape.

What makes a great piece of literary work? Perhaps it is the striking title, the unforgettable, multidimensional characters who bring the story to life, or the compelling dialogue that creates dramatic tension.

Whatever element takes center stage for the reader, literary works are undoubtedly made of several elements resulting from a writer’s creativity, time, and effort.

To reap the fruits of their creative labor, writers want to use intellectual property rights to protect their literary works from copycats. Intellectual property rights, strategically obtained, are the fundamental building blocks to a successful writing career.

Literary works such as books, movie scripts, and magazines are commonly protected by copyright. However, one drawback of copyright is that it lasts for a finite term – in Canada, the term of copyright is life-plus-seventy, which means the life of the author plus 70 years from the end of the calendar year of their death.

By contrast, trademarks, another form of intellectual property, may last indefinitely. In Canada, a trademark holder has an exclusive right to use the mark for ten years and may renew the mark every ten years indefinitely.

A trademark protects words, designs, tastes, textures, moving images, modes of packaging, holograms, sounds, scents, three-dimensional shapes, colors, or a combination of these, used to distinguish the goods and/or services of one party from another party in the marketplace.

Trademarks are valuable assets that can increase the value of your brand. Therefore, the value you derive from trademarks can easily outweigh the initial costs of a trademark application.

As trademarks can offer writers and novelists indefinite terms of protection, unlike copyright, which has a limited period of protection, writers and novelists may turn to trademarks instead of copyright to protect their literary works. That said, not every aspect of literary works can be trademarked.

Can titles of literary works be trademarked? 

A quick search of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office’s Trademarks database will reveal numerous marks associated with the titles of books and movies. For example, crime aficionados will recognize the mark, THE GODFATHER, used in association with the entertainment motion picture film, The Godfather, one of the highest-grossing films ever.

Another is the mark, HARRY POTTER, used in association with books from the Harry Potter series. Despite the existence of these marks in association with the titles of literary works, a 2009 case from the Federal Court of Canada ruled definitively that literary titles cannot be trademarks because the title is inherently descriptive of the associated goods. That is to say that the title is a mere description of the book itself.

Inherently descriptive is one of the grounds for the non-registrability of trademarks in Canada listed in the Trademarks Act. Thereafter, the court ordered the expungement of the book’s title, IN LIGHT OF THE TRUTH.

Can the names of fictional characters be trademarked?

The names of fictional characters may be trademarked. Merchandising literary characters, also known as character merchandising, is a tale as old as time. Character merchandising capitalizes on the customer’s attachment to beloved literary characters and involves taking the essential personality features of literary characters and trademarking those features in association with the merchandise. Essential personality features may include the literary character’s name, image, and appearance.

The possibilities for merchandise options are endless – from two-dimensional products such as stickers, drawings, and postcards to three-dimensional products like dolls, key rings, and other collectible items. A visit to any Disney Park will show character merchandising in action – beloved Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse are associated with trademarks bearing the exact name.

An example closer to home is the mark, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, after the LM Montgomery’s charming tale of small-town girl Anne Shirley, the mark of which is used in association with cookbooks, rag doll patterns, and kits and teacups.

What about trademarks for publisher names? 

Trademarks for brands selling consumer products are ubiquitous – from APPLE used in association with iPhones to MCDONALDS in association with fast food and to NIKE in association with sports goods. On the other hand, publishers’ marks are a lesser-known category of trademarks.

When we think of novels, we may think of their titles, such as the fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. Alternatively, we may identify books by the authors’ name – that Stephen King thriller or that George RR Martin novel.

However, we seldom think of publishers as a brand. Publisher names can be and have been trademarked – for example, the orange penguin logo of Penguin Books Limited, one of the largest publishing houses in the United Kingdom, is a protected mark.

Navigating the trademark landscape is critical to a writer’s ability to protect important aspects of their literary work. If you would like assistance with trademarks or other forms of intellectual property, consider consulting with an intellectual property lawyer.


Christopher Heer is the owner and founder of Heer Law. He is an intellectual property lawyer, registered patent agent, and registered trademark agent.

Christopher is certified as a specialist in intellectual property law (patent) by the Law Society of Ontario.

He believes that intellectual property rights add tremendous value to businesses by enabling them to raise capital, build asset value, and grow faster under the protection these exclusive rights give them.

Co-authored by Larissa Leong and Michelle Huong.

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