Monday, March 16, 2009

Protecting Puppet Characters

Dear Rich: I have a question. I would like to produce a television series that has a host of puppet characters. If I copyright the show, does that protect my characters? Or since they have a distinct identity and expressive features should I go ahead and trademark each of them? I'm so glad you asked. Provided you have created distintive puppet characters, the copyright on your television show should protect the puppet characters (just as the copyright on Sesame Street protects the famous Muppets). The great Judge Learned Hand established the standard for character protection in Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., when he stated that, "...the less developed the characters, the less they can be copyrighted; that is the penalty an author must bear for marking them too indistinctly." 
For example, an alien stranded on earth is a popular and recurring character and by itself, without embellishment, is not protectible. But when that character has a distinctive appearance and demeanor (for example, as seen in My Favorite Martian or The Man Who Fell to Earth) or a distinctive lexicon (for example, he repeats the phrase, "Phone Home") then the character is likely to be protected. Trademark protection is also available for characters, but the Dear Rich staff would recommend that you wait until the puppets are earning money before you pay the $300+ filing fee (per puppet per class of goods). (Always keep in mind that your trademark registration is intended only to provide rights in the class of goods or services that you register.)