If you're a teacher, parent, or bibliophile who has long dreamed of spreading your love of literature to the next generation, you may be excited at the prospect of designing a short course based on your favorite novel or series. However, a class on making wizard wands or elvish rings can hit a brick wall when you're served with a trademark infringement letter. One school found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit from George Lucas after advertising its "light saber training courses" in an attempt to teach students about illuminated stage work. Read on for some trademark-infringement–avoidance tips you'll want to keep in mind when designing a course around a specific novel or group of characters.
What activities can constitute trademark infringement?
This is a broad question that largely depends on which specific aspects of a book or series—from logos to character names or even traits—are trademarked. In the Star Wars lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that, among other violations, the defendant was improperly using a logo that was derived from Lucasfilms' trademarked Jedi logo; had Lucasfilms never trademarked this logo, it would have a much weaker case. In order for something to be trademarked, it has to be distinguishable from others like it—one cannot trademark all red-haired or left-handed characters, but may be able to trademark a red-haired, left-handed character with a noted catchphrase.
Once something is subject to a trademark, it cannot be reproduced or profited upon without the express consent of the trademark holder. This means that every level of infringement—from an editorial cartoon in a high school newspaper to a college program raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—can be legally pursued.
What should you do to ensure your own program or production is legal?
Your first step should be to do some research into the author or publishing company that owns the rights to this novel to determine exactly which trademarks are held. You may find that there are relatively few (if any) trademarks associated with the work—if so, you should have relative freedom to use imagery and characters from the story without worrying about running afoul of trademark law.
On the other hand, if you're planning a course around a highly-trademarked work, you'll want to tread very carefully. And of course, receiving a cease-and-desist letter should prompt one of two reactions—a visit to an attorney to determine what (if anything) you'll need to do, and/or a temporary moratorium on your course until you can clear up any misunderstanding or make the changes needed to keep yourself out of legal hot water. Click here for more information on trademark law.