Your Brand - What it is and How do you Protect it? - Monday Musings - June 11, 2018
For pretty much everyone not living beneath a rock, the viral hashtag #cockygate has crossed your ears, computer screens, or phones in recent weeks. In the extreme off-chance that you don't know what I'm talking about, I'll try to sum it up quickly. You can also see my previous blog post, How to Alienate Your Readers and Tank Your Career - Monday Musings for a more in-depth explanation.
A romance author named Faleena Hopkins, who began publishing a series called The Cocker Brothers of Atlanta on June 16, 2016. The first book was Cocky Roomie, and all the subsequent books (there's 18 so far) have Cocky something as the title. Not too many people had heard of this relatively new author, until in early May 2018 when another author with a Cocky-something titled book, received a cease and desist letter from Faleena, stating that the WORD cocky was now copyrighted. Not the entire title, not the name of her series, but the single word, cocky. The trademark office should never have granted such a broad application for such a commonly used word but that's not the point. The point is, she copyrighted a single word on the excuse that she needed to protect her brand. The whole thing has since blown up in her face, she's shut down most of her social media sites to avoid confrontations with legions of authors and readers, and has actually sued and tried to set restraining orders on people. Specifically ones that she has a personal grudge against, and the author/retired IP lawyer that is petitioning for the trademark cancellation. The court date for that was today, and the judge shut Ms. Faleena down. The trial for the cancellation of the trademark is at a future date.
So now that you're up to date on what caused such a god-awful stink in the writing world, we'll move on to the Pandora's box it opened. Since Faleena's trademark, MULTIPLE authors have followed her misguided steps, and filed their own trademarks for single-use words. #RebellionGate, #ForeverGate, #DareGate, #ShifterWorldGate and many others have come to light, angering the writing community further and proving why the box that Faleena selfishly opened, should have been left alone, and preferably hidden in the 7th layer of hell.
The going excuse for all these misguided authors keeps coming back to one recurring explanation: I'm trying to protect my brand. That's all it really boils down to. But all these authors are missing one glaringly important fact. Your brand isn't your title.
That's right. Your title has pretty much nothing to do with your brand. Your name and the content you create... THAT'S your brand. IT'S YOU. If the title or series name was so important, JK Rowling would have trademarked the title Harry Potter and it's very specific font. (She didn't btw, she trademarked the CHARACTER of Harry Potter), Stephanie Meyers would have trademarked the Twilight Saga and it's unique font, EL James would have trademarked the 50 Shades series. Yet NONE of those huge-name and very successful authors did that. Because the title didn't make the difference. People knew what to expect from each of those authors based on their names and the type of stories they had already delivered.
EVERY author has to deal with crooks and scammers stealing their work and pirating it elsewhere. It's a universal problem. Basic copyright laws apply to everyone that's published to stop people from stealing their work, as long as they can prove they had it first. They can't sue for damages with a basic copyright, but they can stop someone from profiting further off their work. Authors can go a step further and pay to register a copyright. This allows someone to sue for damages if their work is stolen. Trademarking is the next step. Companies like Apple, Pepsi, GE, have all purchased trademarks for their logos and names, in specific fonts and for specific products. For example, Apple owns the trademark for the word in reference to electronic products. They aren't going to sue someone who writes a book called The Apple of Adam, or an Apple Juice manufacturer, etc. These companies have VERY specific TM's that are obviously protecting their very unique brands.
If an author wants to trademark their series name (trademarking single titles is currently illegal), their series name needs to be unique and specific. In Faleena's case, she SHOULD have trademarked "The Cocker Brothers of Atlanta" (The original series name and still showing up on her covers as well as a 'Cocker Brothers' logo and all over her social media), or even "The Cocky Series" (Which, I'd like to add, she didn't start using until this spring AFTER she filed for the trademark.) But by trademarking just the single word 'cocky', she prevented a lot of authors from using it in their titles, forced some to change their already published titles containing the word (with a big expense also forced on them), and started a legal battle with previously published cocky-titled books.
So other than applying for a very expensive and possibly legal battle-inducing trademark, how can an author protect their brand?
Well let's start with what a brand, for an author, is. A brand is a consistent promise to a customer about what they're going to get. For an author, that means the content you deliver. To be clear, your brand is NOT your title. It's what's between the cover. The content. The STORY.
Harry Potter's title might be recognizable, but it wasn't the title that got people to invest in JK Rowling's brand. It was the story of a young boy, who'd already had a rough start to life, finding out he's actually a wizard and might just hold the fate of the world in his hands. Her brand follows the journey of that boy as he grows and becomes powerful and eventually saves the wizard and muggle world.
As readers, we invested in Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, Dobby, Hagrid, and more. We delved into life at Hogwarts, imagined receiving a letter from an owl, practiced spells with homemade wands. We spent hours reading those pages, going to the movies, buying merchandise, writing our own wizard stories. The title had nothing to do with that. The brand she created by writing a hell of a series kept us with her, years after the first book was published.
Even if Harry had been a Michael or Peter, the story wouldn't have changed. The first book could have been called Samuel Piper and the Philosopher's Stone and the story wouldn't have changed. The brand wouldn't have changed. Because it wasn't the title that made the brand, or even the names of the characters. It was the story that made the Harry Potter brand what it was and continues to be today.
So how do you protect your brand?
You write unique, original, and amazing stories. That's it. Yes, scammers will try to steal your work and sell it on iTunes. Thieves will try to copy your story and sell it as their own. It happens... to EVERYONE. But the stories you write, throughout your career, will create your brand and keep it safe. Readers will come to know your series characters, your style of writing, your voice. They will keep coming back, again and again, even when you write different stories, or start a new series. Because they know that YOU will give them an amazing story that they will fall in love with. They know YOU will write characters so real, it's like they were sitting next to them, characters they will get to know and keep thinking about long after they read 'the end'. Readers will know YOU and the quality of books you'll put out. A single title or a series will draw them in, and the content you deliver will keep them as fans as long as you have books.
So the moral of this blog post is, don't be a grade A asshole and start trademarking words that are commonly used. Trademark an entire series title if you feel you must but it won't make a difference to your readers. As long as you're writing amazing stories, they won't care what your titles are or who else might be writing something similar, they'll care about YOU and what you're writing. A trademark won't protect that. YOU protect that, by being an amazing writer.