Any word, slogan, phrase, logo or name can be trademarked with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provided the mark serves to identify a good or service. If a word on a T-shirt serves to identify the source of the T-shirt and the word is otherwise eligible for trademark protection, that word can be registered for protection with the USPTO. All trademarks must act as identifiers for particular companies. Additionally, the USPTO has several restrictions as to what can be protected.
Words and logos on T-shirts can be protected with the USPTO, but the overall design of the T-shirt is actually protected by copyright law. As soon as the T-shirt is fixed in a tangible medium, any creative and original aspects of the shirt are protected by copyright law. The fixation requirement in copyright law requires that an item be reduced to a physical form. Although registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not necessary for protection, registration provides many benefits including the ability to sue for statutory damages, attorney's fees and court costs.
What Words Can't Be Protected
Certain words can't be protected with the USPTO including generic words, deceptive words, immoral words, scandalous words, words that are already trademarked, words that are merely descriptive and certain names of living and deceased individuals. The best potential words to attempt to trademark for T-shirt designs are words that are arbitrary or fanciful. For example, some brand names that T-shirt companies protect through trademark registration include Crazy Dog Graphics, Fabnob and PalmerCash.
Performing a Search
Before you attempt to trademark any word or logo you want to use on a T-shirt, conduct a background search to make sure your proposed mark is not already in use. Start by searching for your proposed mark with the USPTO's Trademark Electronic Search System. Because not all trademarks are registered with the USPTO, you will also need to search state trademark databases, the Internet and T-shirt company listings.
To register your T-shirt trademark, you will need to complete a trademark application with the USPTO. Visit USPTO.gov for an online application. You will need to provide the USPTO with your name and address, the word you intend to trademark, a description of the goods your mark covers, the date your mark was first used in commerce and an example of your mark being used on a T-shirt. Submit your application along with the requisite filing fee. As of 2012, the filing fee for an online trademark application is $275.
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Louis Kroeck started writing professionally under the direction of Andrew Samtoy from the "Cleveland Sandwich Board" in 2006. Kroeck is an attorney out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania specializing in civil litigation, intellectual property law and entertainment law. He has a B.S from the Pennsylvania State University in information science technology and a J.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.