A Mr. John Shakespeare [I know! Isn't that perfect?] had a question for me, and kindly gave his permission for me to share my answer with all of you.
I just read your interesting and amusing piece, Neologizing 101, in the NY Times. [I did not ask him to say this. —Ed.] Neologizing is the invention of a word; invention seems (to me, at least) to imply copyright. So my questions are: How does one prove invention of a new word? And, how does one copyright that invention, and make royalties (ie; /moolah/) from it?
I realize I'm not the first person to ask you such questions. I've been having a lot of trouble finding the answers on the net, though. So, I would be very grateful of any hints you could throw my way.
First off: IANAL (I am not a lawyer), trademark or otherwise. Real lawyers should feel free to weigh in, that's what blog comments are for.
The short answer, though, is that a word is not copyrightable; you can register a
word as a trademark, connected to a product or service, but you can't copyright it.
This is, I think, because a copyright is a very limited right, and not an absolute property right. Copyrights came about to encourage authors to write by allowing them a limited monopoly over their work; as you can well imagine, that doesn't quite work for words. A word, once created, belongs to the language, not to you. You must share it for it to be effective as a word. (And most neologizers need no encouragement to share, whether monetary or any other sort!)
And even though a word is invented, you can't patent it — again, because the point of a new word is to get it into use, not to restrict its use. Patents are less about granting a right for YOU to use something and more about keeping OTHER people from using it — which doesn't make sense for words: "Here's my new word, sorry, you can't speak, read, or write it." Words have no value when kept apart from the language as a whole. More practically, there is no mechanism for charging a fee for the use of any particular word. (How on earth could you? Even if you could do it for print & broadcast media, you couldn't do it for casual speech … )
Trademarks are the association of a word with a particular product, so as to protect the consumer (who wants to know that their Bon Ami powder is, in fact, Bon Ami, and not some other thing). They are not a license to control the use of a word in all situations. The fact that we have Apple Computers and Apple Records and Apple Tours doesn't mean we are suddenly barred from calling the fruit an apple, too. And you can Google things and get spam in your inbox and Roomba your living room … trademark owners don't like the use of their trademarks as verbs but they cannot FORBID it.
It's better to look at your new word creation as a gift you give back to the language as a whole, rather than as a land-grab you can monetize. The English language has (ostensibly) been good to you; why not give something back?
[Have a question for the Dictionary Evangelist? There's an email link up there on the right …]
Labels: copyright, legalities, neologism, patents, trademarks