Copyright issues related to Characters are often difficult to fully appreciated and determine.
One way to look at the issue is to as the question below:
"Did the story make the character or did the character make the story."
IF the character makes the story then there is likely strong copyright protection.
The best way to explain is to provide you with some background law and sample cases.
Copyright of Fictitious Characters
The prevailing rule is that a character is entitled to separate copyright protection if the character was distinctly delineated in the plaintiff's work and the delineation s was copied in the Defendants work.
(a) Distinct Delineation -
In the case of characters created strictly by word (novel or poem) the character must be extremely well delineated, to the point that the character constitutes the story being told, rather than merely being a vehicle for telling the story.
Nichols v. Universal : Took a slightly less rigid view, suggesting that the character must be more than just a "type" and must be drawn in considerable detail.
(b) Cartoon Cases -
When the character at issue has a visual aspect, courts have been more willing to find copyright protection. The visual image, combined with conceptual qualities, gives the court something more concrete and detailed to work with, and more comfort that the character constitutes "expression" and not "idea."
Example - Anderson v. Stallone :
Anderson wrote a 31-page "treatment" called "Rocky IV" which he hoped to sell to Sylvester Stallone to be made into a sequel to the movie Rocky III. The treatment used the main characters from the earlier three Rocky movies. The court found that the Anderson's treatment, by taking the characters, infringed Stallone's copyright
protection in those characters. The court commented : "The Rocky characters are one of the most highly delineated group of characters in modern American cinema.
Even when copyright protection is not available for characters, they may be
protected as trademarks.
Several Cases to consider
Nichols v. Universal Pictures 45 F.2d 119 (1930)
Holding: It follows 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.
Warner Bros. Inc. v. Columbia Broadcasting System 216 F.2d 945 (1954)
The well-known mystery-detective story, "The Maltese Falcon," was written by Dashiell Hammett, and was published serially in a magazine and then in a book by the publisher Knopf which held the copyright. In 1930, Hammett and Knopf conveyed to Warner Brothers, for $8,500, certain defined exclusive rights (alone with a copyright assignment) to the use of The Maltese Falcon in moving pictures. Warner's highly successful motion picture, starring Humphrey Bogart as the detective protagonist Sam Spade, was released in 1941. In 1946, Hammett granted to CBS the right to use the Sam Spade character and name, along with the names and characters of others in the Maltese Falcon, except for their use in the Maltese Falcon story. CBS broadcast weekly half-hour Sam Spade radio programs from 1946 to 1950. Warner sued CBS, Hammett, and Knopf, claiming that the programs infringed its rights to the Falcon story and characters under copyright law.
Court interpreted the 1930 grants to Warner and held that they could not properly be read to have conveyed rights to the characters outside of the Falcon story. The court also noted that Warner had not objected Hammett's publication in 1932 of three stories using the Falcon characters, nor the use by CBS of those characters in a radio program.
The court also observed that Warner's purchase price of $8,500 would seem inadequate compensation for the complete surrender of the characters made famous" in the falcon book.
It is conceivable that the character really constitutes the story being told, but if the character is only the chessman in the game of telling the story he is not within the area of the protection afforded by the copyright. We conclude that even if the owners assigned their complete rights in the copyright to the Falcon, such assignment did not prevent the author from using the characters used therein, in other stories.
Anderson v. Stallone11
U.S.P.Q.2d 1161 (1989)
Anderson wrote a 31-page "treatment" called "Rocky IV" which he hoped to sell to Sylvester Stallone to be made into a sequel to the movie Rocky III. The treatment used the main characters from the earlier three Rocky movies. The court found that the Anderson's treatment, by taking the characters, infringed Stallone's copyright protection in those characters.
The court commented: "The Rocky characters are one of the most highly delineated group of characters in modern American cinema.
Walt Disney Productions v. Air Pirates
Purpose of Case
Cartoon characters are copyrightable.
(note: "D" is simply short for "Defendant")
D published two cartoon magazines which depicted several Disney cartoon characters with their names, engaging in bawdy, promiscuous, and drug-ingesting behavior. Disney sued for copyright infringement.
D Argues : Claimed that the Disney characters were not copyrightable and that in any event their admitted copying was protected by the fair use doctrine and the first amendment
Holding / Rationale
Disney wins. Court rejected the claim that characters are never copyrightable. Comic book characters, which have physical as well as conceptual qualities, are more likely to contain some unique elements of expression.
Also note that the larger the group of characters that is selected, the easier it is to say that they "constitute" the entire story.
King Features Syndicates v. Fleischer
Purpose of Case
Making unauthorized toy replica of a copyrightable character is infringement.
P was engaged in the creation and syndication to daily newspapers of a copyrighted comic strip known as "Barney Google and Spark Plug." Spark Plug was a new grotesque and comic race horse. D manufactured and sold a toy which was an exact reproduction of "Sparky."
Holding / Rationale
Infringement : Even though the D had not plagiarized all of the comic strip or all of its principal characters, it had infringed by copying "Sparky."
Detective Comics v. Bruns Publishing
Purpose of Case
SCOPE of copyright protection afforded characters can be broad.
"Wonderman" infringes "Superman"
P owned the copyright in the comic book "Action Comics," which portrayed "Superman," while the Ds published and distributed a "Wonderman" comic book.
Holding / Rationale
Infringement : Both Superman and Wonderman are men "of miraculous strength and speed"; their "attributes and antics . . . are closely similar"; each sheds his ordinary clothing to stand "revealed in full panoply in a skin-tight acrobatic costume," the only real difference is that Superman is blue and Wonderman is red.
Although P is not entitled to a monopoly "of the mere character of a Superman who is a blessing to mankind, it may invoke copyright protection to the extent its work embodies "an arrangement of incidents and literary expressions original with the author."
"book's character names fall under same copyrights as the copyrights of the book"
"What if I want to refer to a character but not the whole book ?"
As noted above, copyright can attach to Characters of a story or book and the answer depends on the character.
If the Character "makes the story" then such a character is more likely covered by copyright.
I the character is well Delineated within the story, copyright rights are more likely to attach.
If characters are a "group of characters" more likely copyright protection attaches to the group.
Thus, one will need to consider each character or group of characters on a case by case basis using the information I provided above.
If you have more questions, please ask.