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Everything You Wanted to Know About Pseudonyms - and Weren't Afraid to Ask!
by Moira Allen

Return to The Business of Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A recent letter to the Inquiring Writer drew a flurry of questions about pseudonyms. In response, we ran three separate "Writing Desk" columns on the topic -- so here are a host of tips on writing under a name other than your own!

How do I copyright my pseudonym?

I write under a pseudonym. I am currently unpublished. In the event that I do become published, I want to know what steps I should take just simply copyrighting my pseudonym. How do I assure that my pseudonym, merely the name I write under, can only be used by me? I want to own the rights to my pseudonym.

As far as I know, you cannot actually "copyright" a pseudonym. Copyright is the wrong term; it applies only to a "created work" such as an article, story, poem, song, etc. It does not apply to names, ideas, or "information" (data).

I believe the only way you could actually protect your pseudonym so that no one else uses it would be to obtain a trademark. However, that is extremely difficult, and you would need to be able to show that your pseudonym is already a recognized name -- i.e., that you have already published under that name sufficiently to justify its protection.

For example, the name "V.C. Andrews" is trademarked. V.C. Andrews herself died many years ago; the books written under her name are written by ghostwriters, and the name is owned by the publisher. However, this name could not have been trademarked until it was, itself, considered sufficiently recognizable as the "producer" of a particular type of product to merit the trademark. (In other words, trademarks aren't just given out for the asking.)

If I may venture an opinion in another direction, I think perhaps you are focusing on the wrong issues just now. If you are a young writer, as yet unpublished, your primary focus should be on developing your craft and skill. Worrying about pseudonyms at this point is like worrying about what color ribbon to tie around an empty package. Work on the writing side. Work toward publication. Work toward building your name -- whatever name you choose -- into a name that will be recognized for the quality of your work.

To be blunt, as long as you are an unknown, unpublished writer, your name means nothing -- trademarked or not. However, once you become a known writer, your name will take on the meaning that I suspect you seek -- and it really won't matter, at that point, if someone else happens to have or use the same name, because your name will always be associated with your work. And by the time you reach that point of recognition and expertise, you will also have (I suspect) a different view of what matters in the writing profession.

What do I have to do, legally, to use a pen name?

Is there something I have to do legally to use a pen name? How do I find out if it is already being used or is someone's name?

You don't have to do anything "legally" (e.g., go to court, file a form, etc.) to use a pen name. Nor is a pen name something that can be copyrighted (though in rare instances it can be trademarked), so it doesn't actually matter whether someone else is using it or not. Technically, you could call yourself "Stephen King" if you wanted to, though I wouldn't recommend it. You can't, however, call yourself "V.C. Andrews," because that pen name actually is trademarked by the publisher of V.C. Andrews's books.

If you want to write under a pen name, it's usually best to let the publisher know your real name, but ask to have the pen name used as your byline. This is so that you can receive checks in the correct name, which is linked to your social security number. If you don't even want the publisher to know your real name, you may have to develop a "business" identity ("doing business as" or "dba") so that you can get paid properly, because publishers have to have your correct social security number for tax purposes. To link a pen name to your SSN, I believe you'd have to do something like the above, which is complicated and really not worth the effort.

Can I use my maiden name as a pseudonym? Do I have to legally change my name to do so?

I was wondering if you can tell me the legalities of using my maiden name as well as my married name now that I have changed my name with the Social Security office. Actually, I want to hyphenate my name so that it includes both my maiden name and my married name. Do I have to get my name changed officially to do that?

It is perfectly legal to use your maiden name as a pseudonym, or any other name you choose. The issue you face with respect to legality is primarily that of getting paid. Unless you want to conceal your identity from your editor or publisher, all you need to do is make it clear that your real name (for pay checks, and associated with your social security number) is "A", while your "byline" (the name you want published on your material) is "B".

If you actually want to go by your maiden name "legally" in terms of setting up bank accounts, getting paid in that name, etc., I believe you would need to establish a "doing business as" (dba) identity. In a sense, you would be establishing your pen name as your "business" -- while you, under your own name, would be the sole proprietor of that business.

This enables you to establish a business bank account under your pen name, and have checks made out to that name. If organizations file 1099's (a statement to the IRS and you on how much you were paid as a "contractor" -- i.e., writer) in your "business" name, you resolve this by putting your business name under the "doing business as" section on your Schedule C. However, I'm not absolutely clear on how this works for a pen name, so if you wanted to go this route, I'd suggest checking with a lawyer or accountant come tax time.

Your bank can tell you what the local requirements are in your area for establishing a dba, and can sometimes help you set this up. Your local business licensing office can also help.

Another alternative is not to hyphenate, but to use your maiden name as your "middle" name. For example, I have often written a "Moira Anderson Allen," which incorporates my maiden name into my "byline" without actually affecting my legal name. (Some of my earlier material is written under my maiden name, and I hoped this might "bridge the gap" for my readers.) If I used hyphenation ("Moira Anderson-Allen"), my last name would then actually begin with "Anderson" and this would thus not be my "legal" name.

Is a different spelling of one's name considered a pseudonym?

Is it considered using a pseudonym if you are writing under a different spelling of the same name? For example, Jacqueline instead of Jacklyn but the same last name?

I'm not sure you'd call it a pseudonym per se, in that you aren't actually disguising your name. However, from a legal standpoint, it is still a pen name in that it is not the legal spelling of your name. For tax purposes, since that spelling does not match the spelling that accompanies your Social Security Number, you could have problems if your publisher files 1099 forms (indicating your income) in a name that doesn't match yours.

The best bet here is to tell publishers that you want your byline spelled one way, but your checks and accounting to be handled under another spelling.

Will a pen name protect you if you write about topics that might make you vulnerable?

Do you think it is a waste to use a pen name? I mean if people can trace your work back to you, would it just be better to not write about topics that might make you vulnerable?

I don't think it is a waste of time. However, I would not rely on a pen name alone to protect myself, in a situation such as you described. Other questions you're likely to need to address are how much information you'd want included in a bio, whether you'd give out an e-mail address, etc. For example, lots of folks put their state of residence in a bio; in your case, I wouldn't, or, I'd put in a different state. (If I lived in California, I might say Nevada.)

The second issue that you'd want to consider is how much you want to reveal or conceal in what you write. This is a similar consideration faced by anyone writing about real events and real people -- but wanting to make sure that the actual people can't be identified. You can change names, locations, personal information, etc., so that by the time your article is finished, it would be very difficult for someone to say, "I know who that is about."

In the days of print publications, it was not easy to locate the author of a particular piece. With the Internet, however, tracking down a person has become a lot easier -- you'd be amazed what comes up just by typing a person's name into a search engine. (You might want to try typing in your own, just to see what happens.) I once typed in the name of someone I knew as a child and hadn't heard from in 30 years -- and found her through a resume posted online by the college that she worked for.

What you choose to write about and how you choose to write it, therefore, must be something that you consider as part of your larger efforts to conceal your whereabouts and identity. I think it can be done, but it's going to require a lot of thought and caution. I wish you the best of luck with your decision!

Should I use a pseudonym to disguise my identity when writing a true account?

For two years I led an interesting and humorous life as a bar and restaurant owner. I have quite an array of funny and sad stories about the bar business. I simply could not, however, write this book without hurting some feelings and perhaps ruining some relationships. Would a pseudonym be justified in this case?

The short answer is "yes." The longer answer is "however..."

Many people do use pseudonyms to conceal their identity when writing about real-life experiences. However, if your goal is to make sure you don't hurt feelings or ruin relationships, this alone may not be enough. The people closest to you will know that you wrote the book; are these the same people who might be hurt by the book? In that case, changing your name alone is not enough!

If the people who might be hurt are those who are unlikely to read the book (unless it came out under your name), you're a little safer. However, the problem you face is not so much how to disguise your identity, but how to disguise the identities of the characters in your book. If you were to write something that a person might consider libelous or defamatory (even if that was not your intent), that person might sue you, not because your name is on the book but because they recognize themselves. Unless you have permission to write about the people you've met, you'll definitely want to invent fictitious names for those people, and you need to take steps to ensure that someone couldn't pick up the book and say, "Hey, I know who that is, that's so-and-so!" If so-and-so is offended by what you wrote, and can be readily identified from your book even if you've changed so-and-so's name, you could be sued. (It isn't all that common, but it does happen.)

Since you will need to take steps to adequately "disguise" your characters, you might do better to write the book in your own name, as autobiographical, and work on making sure you've done enough to ensure that no one who is covered in the book will have reason to get mad at you.

Find Out More...

Pseudonyms: 10 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Pen Name, by Adrienne deWolfe

Should You Use a Pseudonym? by Moira Allen

Using Pseudonyms (survey), by Dawn Copeman

Copyright © 2011 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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