I listen to the radio a lot and, frankly, I'm confused. Every few years a song comes along with a title identical to that of an earlier song ("Truckin'," "One Man Band," and "Pillow Talk" are a few of the examples that come to mind). How does this happen? Obviously I couldn't go out and write a book called Valley of the Dolls or make a movie entitled Porky's (not that I would want to, but you get my drift). Aren't there such things as copyright laws? Please answer posthaste as I'm in the midst of writing a rock opera with the tentative title How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.
You may be surprised to learn this, but the team of ace legal piranhas on retainer here at Straight Dope World HQ informs me that titles, whether of songs, newspapers, or what have you, cannot be copyrighted. Ditto for short phrases. Titles and so on come under the general heading of trademarks–which is to say, signs used by companies to distinguish their products from those of other firms. In other words, we move from the realm of creative genius (i.e., stuff covered by copyright) to the world of grubby commercialism.
If someone steals your title or trademark, you can sue them for unfair competition, but your chances of winning are by no means guaranteed. Besides, a first-class trademark suit could cost you $30-$100,000, so it’s not something you undertake lightly. When someone steals the title of a song that’s several years old, usually there’s not enough money involved to make a lawsuit an attractive proposition. With movies and some books, however, there’s a lot more at stake. Wherefore, bag the bikini business, bucko, and pick on somebody who can’t afford to fight back.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.