Can the title of a movie be a trademark? What about a book or play title?
“The title of a single creative work is not registrable”,* says the Trademark Office.
Copyright is what protects the content of things like books, movies and plays. If you don’t want someone printing off copies of your book or selling bootleg copies of your movie, you’ll be using copyright, not trademark rights, as the basis of your claim.
So does that mean you can start selling Harry Potter® T-shirts?
See that little ®? You know that means you can’t do it. Because like everything in the law, it’s more complicated than it seems.
First, you can have trademark rights for the name of a series of books (or a series of movies or a TV series). HERE’S LUCY® was registered in 1969. SESAME STREET® was registered in 1973. STAR WARS® was registered in 1979.
Second, you can certainly have trademark rights for all the promotional items that are sold in connection with your book, movie, play, or TV show. There are US trademark registrations for marks containing HARRY POTTER® in fourteen different classes for everything from balloons to dried fruit. So, don’t even think about selling that Breaking Bad chemistry set.
If you’re an author or a film maker, you’ll mostly rely on copyright to protect your work, but you should also consider registering a trademark if you plan to have a series or do merchandising.
*Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure, Section 1202.08.