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How do I go about copyriting or trademarking a phrase or tagline?

Baltimore, MD |

I have a t-shirt business that I have started and use a particular phrase on the shirts and I am looking to copyright it.

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Attorney answers 5


Hi. If you are using a name or phrase on an article in commerce, such as a shirt, you are probably looking to trademark it. You should consult an IP attorney. Many will give you a free initial consultation.

Bruce E. Burdick

Bruce E. Burdick


But, likely you cannot protected as a trademark either if it is merely a statement or comment. For example if you put "FREE BIRD" on a shirt, that is more likely just a statement that you the wearer are a free spirit. On the other hand, if you put "Freebird, Lynrd Skynrd" now you have changed to a trademark and to something arguably protected under right of publicity by the heirs to SWEET HOME ALABAMA [another of their famous songs] after the plane crash killed the band in 1977.


I agree with my collegaue. This is a trademark issue assuming you are using the phrase as a tagline that indentifies your products in commerce.

You would first properly clear the mark then a registration application should be filed with the USPTO (see info below for more on this).

It would be helpful to discuss all your plans and objectives in more detail with a lawyer. Most of us here, including myself, offer a free phone consult.

Best regards,
Natoli-Lapin, LLC
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You cannot copyright a short phrase, but a short phrase can become a trademark. A trademark is a word, phrase or logo that becomes associated in the minds of consumers with the source of specific goods or services. Trademark rights arise from use in commerce and it is not necessary to register your trademark before acquiring trademark rights. However, registration is highly recommended because it has many advantages. It provide evidence that you are the trademark owner and a national presumption that others who compete with you cannot use your trademark. Registration also has many advantages in litigation to enforce trademark rights.

If you want to make sure you are adequately protecting your trademark, you need to retain trademark counsel. First, your counsel must conduct a trademark clearance analysis---before you begin using the phrase or tagline, you need to make sure that you can do so without violate trademarks owned by others, This is critical----many people fail to retain counsel to conduct a trademark clearance and find out years later that their trademark is invalid, that they have to stop using it, and that they are liable for substantial damages for trademark infringement.

Once your trademark clearance is finished, your counsel should file a trademark registration for you. Once the application is filed it will be reviewed by a trademark examiner, who may issue an office action raising objections to your application, Your attorney would need to respond to any such office action. If your attorney successfully responds (or if there is no objection from the trademark examiner), your proposed trademark will be published. After it is published, members of the public have the right to object to issuance of the trademark by instituting an opposition proceeding. If no opposition proceeding is filed, the trademark is issued. However, even after the trademark issues, members of the public can institute a cancellation proceeding. Because of the importance of your trademark to your business, it is important that you have legal counsel on retainer to handle these matters for you. You cannot handle matters like this without legal counsel.


I think a slightly different response is required than given by my colleagues. Generally short phrases are not protectable by copyright and usually not by trademark protection either. If they are the design on the front of the shirt rather than an indication of source of the shirt. For example, if I put "I love rock 'n roll" or "I love country music" on the front of the T-shirt that is not a trademark but rather a comment, unless you instead put "I love rock 'n roll, put another coin in the jukebox baby -Joan Jett and the Blackhearts", in which case it might be considered an indicator of source or origin or sponsorship of the shirt and thus a trademark. Short phrases are not protected under the copyright laws in the USA, because they are deemed not to have the requisite level of creativity.

I am not your lawyer and you are not my client. Free advice here is without recourse and any reliance thereupon is at your sole risk. This is done without compensation as a free public service. I am licensed in IL, MO, TX and I am a Reg. Pat. Atty. so advice in any other jurisdiction is strictly general advice and should be confirmed with an attorney licensed in that jurisdiction.


If the phrase is a slogan (think: "Just do it" for Nike or "Made from the best stuff on earth" for Snapple), then this can be protected via trademark. The process is the same as filing a word mark or logo as a trademark. As the other lawyers have mentioned, the slogan needs to refer to your brand. Simply putting a phrase across a T-shirt can create raise various issues (it could be a mere decorative or ornamental use, for example), but if the phrase is used on the clothing brand and appears on the tags, then it may not be problematic.

It would help to discuss the phrase and use you have in mind with an IP attorney who can advise you on your next steps.