Ask The Dictionary Evangelist

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.
Respectfully,
John Shakespeare

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 …]

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6 thoughts on “Ask The Dictionary Evangelist

  1. “A word, once created, belongs to the language, not to you.”While you may thing this, and while I may happen to agree with the sentiment, do you think that in this capitalism-gone-crazy world that attitude is really supported by the world-at-large?If someone creates an immensely popular word, that person is, likely, going to want to cash in on its success. The idea of something “belonging to the language, not to [the individual]” doesn’t seem like it would be terribly popular in today’s world.People just don’t seem terribly interested in helping out society, be it the language or anything else.

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  2. It seems like there are two opposing forces in society regarding information property rights. The group who sees the greater benefit being for people to have free access to information and those who see the greater benefit in limiting access in favor of a fee. But like Erin points out, practicality is the deciding factor. If I’m charged for using a word, I’ll never use it. Plus it’s impossible to enforce without becoming monsters. Just ask the RIAA (and George Orwell probably would have something to say, as well).

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  3. While you may think this, and while I may happen to agree with the sentiment, do you think that in this capitalism-gone-crazy world that attitude is really supported by the world-at-large?There’s not much people can do about it. If a word catches on, people will use it. What they can’t do is use that word to promote a product if it’s trademarked, as Erin says. So I can use the word three-peat to my heart’s content, but if I want to sell a shirt with three-peat splashed across the chest, I’ll have to pay Pat Riley.

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  4. Copyrights and patents were not implemented to make inventors rich.They were implemented for the benefit of the whole society. Nobody would research for years, if everybody could just rebuild the product of that research without paying a cent to the developer. And why should somebody spend month to write a book, if everybody could make a free copy? We wouldn’t have many inventions, music or books if they weren’t legally protected. If it would take months of considerations to make a new word, then word should also be legally protected. But I doubt, that this is the case.

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  5. I think the statement that a word “belongs to the language” needs to be considered a bit more closely. What is a language, exactly, according to this view? What abstract existence does it maintain beyond the brains of its speakers?Also, the Mapuche people of Chile and Argentina have taken Microsoft to court over the ownership of their whole language. http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,20813318-401,00.htmlMaybe the question is not “can we own language?” but “what must language be if we can consider it property?”

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