Intellectual property rights protect products of the mind. Two of the most common intellectual property rights are copyrights and trademarks. A copyright protects original works of authorship, and trademarks act as source identifiers. It is unlikely that a single word can be subject to a copyright; however, a trademark might offer the type of protection sought.
Copyrights are protections for “original works of authorship,” protection granted under the U.S. Constitution. If a person owns the copyright to an original work, that person may exercise certain rights, such as the exclusive right to publicly display the work or to recreate copies of the work.
Generally, words in and of themselves are not sufficiently original to constitute original works of authorship. Originality is the primary issue when assessing whether a particular work is capable of copyright protection, and a single word typically does not possess sufficient originality to be copyrightable.
Even if the word is not subject to copyright protection, it might be capable of being a trademark. A trademark is a source identifier; it identifies goods or services offered in commerce. If a person wants to take commercial advantage of a word – most likely so consumers will associate that word with the person’s business – a trademark might accomplish such a task.
Even assuming a word can be copyrighted, the holder must take certain steps to take advantage of those protections. Before a copyright holder can bring an action for copyright infringement, she must register her copyright with the Library of Congress. Likewise, trademark protection arises only if another person is using a confusingly similar mark in commerce. Because of the various legal hurdles associated with copyrights and trademarks, it is important to speak to an expert before pursuing any course of action.
Although a copyright or a trademark affords certain protections, there are limitations. Copyrights do not come into play if the use in question is considered “fair use.” Fair use includes transforming the particular copyright into something that essentially constitutes a new original work – an artist’s rendition of a famous work of art could be considered transformative, which would mean it did not violate the original artist’s copyright. Likewise, trademarks arise because of use in commerce. The law doesn't protect copyrights and trademarks if the work does not fall within the range of the particular law.