There is a series of books published in the early 20th century. Copyright on at least some of them have expired; they are in the public domain, and are being widely republished.

However, the descendants of the author have trademarked the names of the main characters. This trademark can effectively be renewed forever.

How much control does the trademark give them? I'm interested in whether they can stop the publishing of any derivative works. Would an "(X) character is a legal registered trademark of (Y)" disclaimer head that off? Would the setting and story with the trademarked characters stripped out be permissible?

Of course, there's a specific series of books that I'm interested in, but I wanted the general answer because I think this situation is not unique.

  • Any particular jurisdiction? U.S.? U.K.?
    – apsillers
    Jun 15, 2015 at 12:11
  • I was interested in the U.S., although I think that trademark, copyright, and other intellectual property laws are pretty consistent internationally due to various treaties. Jun 15, 2015 at 15:09
  • @kbelder "...and other IP..." not really. Especially in the US regarding Patents. It wasn't until 2013 that we became FTF
    – Andrew
    Jun 24, 2015 at 20:07
  • I don't see how asking how parts of public domain writings can be copyrighted is not a contradiction in terms.
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 19, 2021 at 1:44
  • 1
    @Neil Meyer trademark protection and copyright protection are quite different in intent and effect. It is absolutely possible for the names of characters in a public domain work to be trademarked. Aug 19, 2021 at 1:47

2 Answers 2


A trademark is

a symbol, word, or words legally registered or established by use as representing a company or product.

In short, I do not think that the family will have an enforceable trademark. Even if they obtained one, the family would have to enforce it and will not likely be successful.

From USPTO Basic Facts p2-7:

Generally, marks fall into one of four categories: fanciful or arbitrary, suggestive, descriptive, or generic. The category your mark falls into will significantly impact both its registrability and your ability to enforce your rights in the mark.

Suggestive marks suggest, but do not describe, qualities or a connection to the goods or services. Suggestive marks are registrable and are also considered “strong” marks. If you do not choose a fanciful or arbitrary mark, a suggestive mark is your next best option.

Descriptive marks are words or designs (e.g., depiction of a television for “television repair services”) that describe the goods and/or services. Such marks are generally considered “weaker” and therefore more difficult to protect than fanciful and arbitrary marks. If the USPTO determines that a mark is “merely descriptive,” then it is not registrable or protectable on the Principal Register unless it acquires distinctiveness-- generally through extensive use in commerce over a five-year period or longer. Descriptive marks are considered “weak” until they have acquired distinctiveness.

Generic words are the weakest types of “marks” (and cannot even qualify as “marks” in the legal sense) and are never registrable or enforceable against third parties. Because generic words are the common, everyday name for goods and services and everyone has the right to use such terms to refer to their goods and services, they are not protectable. Be aware that if you adopt a generic term to identify your goods or services, you will not be able to prevent others from using it to identify potentially competing products or services. In addition, even a fanciful mark that is very strong can, over time, become generic if the owner either starts using the mark in a nontrademark manner (see ESCALATOR and ASPIRIN examples, below) or fails to police use of its mark properly and take appropriate action. Without proper policing over time, the original owner of a mark could lose any trademark rights it has in the mark.

The USPTO will also refuse registration of a proposed mark for many other reasons, including but not limited to the mark being: a surname; geographically descriptive of the origin of the goods/ services; disparaging or offensive; a foreign term that translates to a descriptive or generic term; an individual’s name or likeness; the title of a single book and/or movie; and matter that is used in a purely ornamental manner.

  • 1
    A trademark search on "Mickey Mouse" gives dozens of hits, all owned by Disney. Character names, it would appear, are very much trademarkable.
    – Mark
    Jun 24, 2015 at 22:35
  • 1
    Micky Mouse would probably also be used as a product line which would take it out of the cinematic / literary world. It is not the character name that is trademarked, it is the character name as used in commerce. For instance, if I wrote a book and said something like "He has ears as big as Micky Mouse's." I would probably not infringe a trademark.
    – Andrew
    Jun 24, 2015 at 22:49
  • If I manufactured "Micky Mouse Mousse" then they would have a claim for violating their Trademark.
    – Andrew
    Jun 24, 2015 at 22:51
  • Mickey Mouse is still (claimed to be) in copyright. How enforceable would the trademark be if the copyrights expired? Jan 30, 2016 at 14:46
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    The enforceability of a trademark is not affected by the copyrightability of the marl.
    – Andrew
    Jan 30, 2016 at 18:10

Character names can be trademarked in connection with the sale of books. For example, both "Harry Potter" and "Gandalf" are so trademarked.

However, any trademark required continuing use. If the trademark is not actually being used to sell goods or services (currently, within a reasonable past period, or with demonstrable future plans to do so) then an action to enforce the trademark will fail. If the name of the character is part of the title or sub-title of the book, for example "Joe Hero and the evil Empire" or 'The Evil Empire: a Joe Hero book" or is used in marketing the book, that would make the case for applying the trademark stronger.

However, details on just how the name has been used, both by the trademark holders and by others, would make a difference. Anyone seriously interested should consult an experienced Trademark/IP lawyer in the appropriate jurisdiction (which you don't mention, and which may matter).

Also, if some but not all of the works in the series are still protected by copyright, new works featuring the characters from the series might be considered derivative works of the protected originals, and as such require permission from the copyright holder(s). Again, details will matter here, as will jurisdiction.

  • Interesting then that 50 shades of grey was originally Twilight fan fiction.
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 19, 2021 at 1:26
  • 1
    @Neil Meyer Yes, but it is my understanding that the published version of 50 Shades did not use any names or clearly recognizable characters from Twilight. If so, there would be no trademark issue. I don't know enough details to have a view on the copyright issue, but given how successful 50 Shades was, if the copyright holder of Twilight. thought that there was a valid claim, surely action would have been taken. Or perhaps there was a quiet license agreement to settle the matter. Aug 19, 2021 at 1:38
  • That last sentence is most likely the case. The original pseudonym that it was published on is mentioned in the book. You can still probably find the original material online.
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 19, 2021 at 1:51

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