The following is a guest post by Jessica Chinnadurai, a registration specialist at the U.S. Copyright Office.
My first name, Jessica, was the most popular baby girl name in the 1990s. My last name, Chinnadurai, is a unique surname with origins in southern India. The dichotomy has resulted in me being fascinated by names. We name our children, pets, and cars; even our inner self-critic might have their own name! A lot of thought can go into a name, as family members or sacred traditions are honored. Some people love their name, are indifferent to it, or have never felt like it fit them.
National Name Yourself Day is celebrated on April 9 and is a day on which we can feel inspired to try on a new name.1 Just as the Copyright Office encourages us to “find yourself in copyright,” National Name Yourself Day supports enhanced self-awareness and autonomy in relation to our evolving identities.
As a registration specialist in the Office of Registration Policy and Practice, I am no stranger to someone naming themselves something different than their given name, particularly in the form of a pseudonym.
What is a pseudonym and why use one?
Merriam-Webster defines a “pseudonym” as a “fictitious name” and tells us “[p]seudonym, has its origins in the Greek word pseudonymos, which means ‘bearing a false name.’”2 Similarly, although the Copyright Act does not define a pseudonym, it does define a “pseudonymous work” as a work on which the author is identified “under a fictitious name.”3
For registration purposes, a pseudonym is a name, not a number or a symbol.4 “The name of the author’s d.b.a. (‘doing business as’) designation is not a pseudonym,” and similarly, “the name of a performing group is not a pseudonym.”5 Further, the Office has determined that the statutory language of section 302 of Title 17 of the United States Code implies that pseudonymous works are created by natural persons rather than legal entities or organizations.6 Lastly, a pseudonym itself is not protected by copyright law because copyright does not protect words and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans.7
Based on my experience, another example of a common misunderstanding is thinking a nickname, for example, “Jess” for “Jessica,” is a pseudonym. However, a nickname is merely a shortened form of a legal name with no fictitious—that is, imaginary or fabricated—foundation.8 One’s middle name is also not a pseudonym because it is part of a full legal name.9 This is in contrast to the example of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as “Dr. Seuss.” Although “Seuss” was the author’s middle name, the addition of “Dr.” was “a tongue-in-cheek reference to his uncompleted doctorate degree[.]”10 As such, and in my opinion, “Dr. Seuss” is one of the world’s most famous pseudonyms.
Sometimes, one pseudonym is shared by two people. For example, spouses Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril write together using the shared pseudonym “Lars Kepler.” This idea is growing in popularity as couples, best friends, and parent-child duos collaborate on creative projects. Aside from creative collaboration, authors might use a pseudonym to hide their identity or to explore a different style of writing. Nora Roberts, a well-known romance novelist, did this when she chose to write a science fiction series using the pseudonym “J.D. Robb.”11 Another example is an academic who might choose to use their legal name on scholarly papers and a pseudonym on a fiction novel they write and publish.
What is the importance of a pseudonym in copyright law?
Under section 302(c) of Title 17, the copyright term for a pseudonymous work endures for 95 years from the year of publication or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever is shorter.12 This is different from the standard term of copyright protection for works created on or after January 1, 1978, which is the life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death.13 In the case of pseudonymous works, however, if the identity of one or more of the authors is revealed in the registration record, the term of copyright reduces to seventy years after the author dies.14
When applying for copyright registration, authors have a choice of whether to use their legal name, their pseudonym, or both on the application.15 Information on a copyright registration becomes part of the public record. So, if an author does not wish to disclose their legal name publicly, they can provide their pseudonym in the fields of the online application for Name of Author, Name of Claimant, Rights and Permissions Correspondent, or Certification.16
In contrast, using both the legal name and a pseudonym on the work itself has important consequences from a registration perspective. As mentioned above, a “pseudonymous work” is one on which the author is identified under a fictitious name (the pseudonym).17 However, if an author’s pseudonym is on the front cover of a book, but their legal name appears next to the copyright notice or in the “About the Author” section, the work is no longer a pseudonymous work. This is because the author’s legal name can be found somewhere in the work.18
Determining whether to use a pseudonym or create a pseudonymous work has legal implications that are important for creators to consider. I hope that this information and National Name Yourself Day empower you to better understand copyright law as it pertains to exploring your creative identities!
1“National Name Yourself Day – April 9, 2022,” National Today, accessed April 5, 2022, https://nationaltoday.com/national-name-yourself-day/.
2“Pseudonym,” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, accessed April 5, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pseudonym.
317 USC § 101 (2020).
4Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Copyright Office, 2021), 615.2(A).
5Compendium, 615.2(A). See also Compendium, 802.8(D) and 803.8(C).
6Compendium, 614.1(E). See also Compendium, 615.2(A) (“The statute implies that pseudonymous works are limited to works created by an individual. Compare [17 USC § 101] (definition of ‘pseudonymous work’) with 17 U.S.C. § 302(c) (indicating that the term for a pseudonymous work may be based on the life of the author if his or her identity is revealed before the copyright expires). Therefore, the applicant should check the Pseudonymous box only if the author is a human being. If the author is a corporation, limited liability company, partnership, or other legal entity, the author’s full name should be provided in the Name of Author field/space. If the applicant checks the Pseudonymous box, the application may be questioned if the author appears to be a legal entity.”).
737 CFR § 202.1, See also U.S. Copyright Office, Pseudonyms (Circular 32) March 2021, https://copyright.gov/circs/circ32.pdf.
8Circular 32 (“Nicknames and abbreviated forms of legal names are not considered pseudonyms. For example, the British writer Joanne Rowling uses an abbreviated name and a pseudonym. She writes under ‘J.K. Rowling,’ which is an abbreviated name, and ‘Robert Galbraith,’ which is a pseudonym.”)
10“Dr. Seuss.” Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified February 26, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dr-Seuss.
11Samantha Grossman, “Famous Authors with Secret Pseudonyms,” TIME, July 14, 2013, https://newsfeed.time.com/2013/07/15/famous-authors-with-secret-pseudonyms/slide/nora-roberts-j-d-robb/.
1317 USC § 302(a).
1417 USC § 302(c).
1717 USC § 101 (2020).
18Compendium, 615.2(B) (“If the author’s real name appears anywhere on the copies or phonorecords (including the copyright notice), the work is not a pseudonymous work, even if the author does not wish to reveal his or her identity in the registration record and even if the author is generally known by his or her pseudonym.”).