…um, yeah…you can’t do that. Let’s say you think up a great idea about a race of inverted bellybuttons whose diabolical plan is to overtake the world, but you never get around to writing it. Then you happen to walk past a bookstore and see a book that SCADS! has your same title and a story about a race of inverted bellybuttons creating havoc on Earth. Guess what? You have no claim over that idea, or the title. None, whatsoever.
The discussion of copyrighting ideas and titles comes up from time to time whenever a flap arises that challenges the patience of those in possession of a brain, and the latest bruhaha is a doozey. It’s over a Scottish cat. The Tobermory Cat, to be more specific. If you’ve been living under a rock, you may not have heard about this incredible story of an artist who lays claim to what, clearly, doesn’t belong to him, but nonetheless has launched a vicious attack against the author and her publisher who produced a book about…you guessed it; The Tobermory Cat. The sordid details can be read in The Guardian article.
The gist is that an artist had been trying to make a go of his paintings and such of this cat. A publisher, who had spent many years visiting Tobermory on the Scottish Isle of Mull, discussed the idea of a children’s book about the small town’s famous little cat with a local bookstore, who encouraged the idea. He went so far as to suggest the publisher and the newly-signed-on author visit the local artist and see about including advertising his paintings at the back of their book. It would be a win win for all parties. Except the painter didn’t agree.
He insisted the publisher and author were infringing on his rights because he was convinced he had made the cat famous via his Facebook page – which he hadn’t – and he would have nothing to do with the publication. Ok, so end of story, right? Wrong. The painter then enlisted the help of all his FB supporters to launch a gynormous smear campaign upon the publisher and the author. The details are horrendous.
Here’s a fact: For all this artist’s bloviating and simpering, he can’t prevent anyone from writing and publishing a story with a vaguely similar idea, nor can he prevent anyone from using the same title. All one need do is let their fingers do the walking in Amazon, and they’ll see plenty books that have the same title. Sure, it’s a pain in the rumpus, but it’s also perfectly legal. That’s why publishers usually check titles first so they can avoid title confusion.
So what is protected? You can copyright a character in a series. Just try writing a skanky missive involving Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and you’ll have Disney breathing down your collar so fast, your neck will melt because they are trademarked. However, if you write a famous character who happens to be a mouse at a famous make-believe tourist attraction, then you’re on safe ground because there is no copyright violation.
There are specific laws regarding copyright, and before you go off half-baked like this very confused artist, you need to be sure that the law is on your side. Regardless of your feelings as to who is the wronged party, we have laws for a reason, and it’s to protect the innocent from being harangued by the simple-minded and emotionally-charged. The toll on the publisher and author come through very clearly in the article, and even though they are on solid legal ground, I’m sure they wish the idea had never come up. Such is the way of bullies.
A very sad case, indeed, and my heart goes out to the publisher and author.
*For great legal advice for writers (also includes an excellent breakdown of copyright), I suggest picking up a copy of lawyer extraordinaire, Donna Ballman’s book, Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers.