How to Copyright a Phrase

Copyright is a type of intellectual property law. It protects original works with established authorship. However, copyright does not cover phrases. You can still protect your phrase by using a trademark, which is easy to get if it is part of a branding or advertising campaign.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

You cannot copyright a phrase, but you can trademark a phrase if it means something other than its original meaning and if it identifies a specific good or service.

What Copyrights and Trademarks Protect

Copyright protects “original works of authorship" created in a tangible or fixed form. This means a human with at least a small amount of creativity must have taken part in its creation. Additionally, the work must be in an adequately permanent medium. Works that copyright law protects fall under the following categories:

  • Literature
  • Music
  • Drama (i.e., plays)
  • Pantomime and choreography
  • Art (i.e., pictorial, graphic and sculptural)
  • Motion pictures and additional audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architecture

Copyright does not protect words or phrases unless they have a logo attached containing sufficient authorship. You can't copyright a phase. However, you can trademark a phrase without an attached logo. The phrase in question must be wholly original and have a secondary meaning unrelated to its initial purpose. It must also identify a specific good or service. Phrases including catchphrases, taglines, slogans, or mottos can receive a trademark.

Researching Usage of Your Phrase

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office allows the registration of trademarks for use in a specific geographic location on a first-come, first served basis. By searching its Trademark Electronic Search System database, you can see if your phrase already has a registered trademark. If it does, you cannot register the phrase. If it doesn't, you can register for a trademark by filling out an application.

A trademark on your phase will legally protect it from others who may claim the right to use it. If another entity does use it and you've already registered it, you can file suit in federal court to protect it. You do not have to prove that your trademark is valid. Instead, the person or entity using it without permission must show why it isn't.

Rules Constituting a Trademarkable Phrase

The rules regarding what phrases the USPTO will allow you to trademark can be tricky. For the organization to approve your trademark application, yours must be the only business using the phrase in the class in which you are filing. The USPTO may also refuse your application if it deems your phrase unsuitable. Furthermore, if the phrase you're attempting to register has no relation to your goods and services, is too generic, includes terms already popular in business or the industry your targeting and is merely a descriptor of product characteristics and features, the USPTO likely won't approve your application.

How to Trademark a Phrase

To apply for a trademark, fill out an application on the USPTO's website with your name, address, the phrase you wish to trademark, the goods or services the phrase will identify and your reason for filing. Your application must include the filing fee which varies depending on the class of goods and services where you're filing the trademark. If you register your trademark in more than one class, you will have to pay a filing fee for each. To find fee totals, visit the USPTO's fee schedule page. The USPTO accepts fees by check, money order, credit card or electronic funds transfer.

Make sure to fill out your application carefully. If an error isn't correctable, you will lose your filing fee and you'll have to submit a new form. If you can correct your form, you can send the correction to the USPTO through its Trademark Electronic Application System. Call the USPTO's Trademark Assistance Center at 800-786-9199 or email TrademarkAssistanceCenter@uspto.gov with any questions or to report any potential application errors.

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About the Author

Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.