These are usually the writers who don't know about "fair use" and who don't know that you can't use trademarked words or phrases in book titles without incurring corporate wrath.
Yes, that's right. Don't slap the title, "What's up, Doc?" on your self-published book. What'S Up, Doc?® is a registered trademark used for Printed Matter and Paper Goods, Namely, Books ... and owned by Time Warner Entertainment Company.
I learned about trademarked phrases from the late Kate Duffy when I sold a book about 2 doctors to Kensington with that title. Kate explained to me why they could not use my title. We agreed to change it to Just One Look, and the comedy of errors courtship novel has been a huge seller for me ever since.
Bulletproof Your Title
You don't want to use a title that is already used by more publishers than you can count. You also don't want to use a title that is a registered trademark without permission of the trademark owner. If you do, they may unleash their big dog lawyers on you.
If you're thinking you're just some small fry, unknown by one and all, so you're safe, allow me to correct you. They will take you to the cleaners. (By the way, I use Google alerts to keep track of where my name and book titles pop up so you know trademark owners do this too.)
Of course, the answer is to educate yourself about this matter. Here's what you need to do.
3 Ways To Research Your Title
1. The first thing I do when brainstorming titles is to plug the proposed title into an Amazon Title Search. I'll admit that it's getting harder and harder to find a title that hasn't been used. In the past, I've announced proposed titles only to have another author publish something a short time later with the same title. Sometimes this is coincidence, but sometimes, it's an author stealing your thunder.
When I have a list of 5 or 6 titles, I move to the second step.
2. Plug the proposed title into a search engine. I always use Google despite the TV commercials trying to convince you that Bing is preferred over Google. In my book, Google is king.
Depending on what I find with my Google search, I take what's left of my title list and move to step 3.
3. I search the United States Trademark Website for those title phrases. When you do a search, don't use quote marks around the title the way you do in most searches because one or more of the words in the title might be trademarked but not the entire phrase you want to use.
On the Trademark website, you'll see a blue box in the left sidebar with menu items. Click Search Marks. Next click Basic Word Mark Search which allows searching of the most commonly searched fields: word marks, serial or registration numbers, and owners and is designated New User.
Type in your tentative title, and you'll discover if the phrase is, or has been, trademarked. Personally, even if it comes up "dead," meaning not currently registered, I'd play it safe and still not use it because it has once been registered and that may create legal problems for you.
It's easier and cheaper to prevent an infringement problem than to fix one.
(This article previously appeared in Writing Hacks, my subscription newsletter for writers. Subscribe today and receive a free ebook along with great articles like this.)