Trademark Journal

Can You Trademark a Phrase?

CATEGORY: Trademark
28 June 2023


You have heard of companies trademarking their brands that consist of words, or designs, or a combination of the two. But can you trademark a phrase – e.g., a tagline? The answer is yes, but a few conditions must be met. In this blog post, we will explore the conditions under which you can trademark a tagline and some examples of taglines that have been successfully registered. We will also touch on the importance of registering your tagline and how it can help protect your brand. So, if you have ever wondered whether you can protect that clever catchphrase you came up with, read on for more information. 

What is a trademark? 

A trademark is a type of intellectual property that consists of a specific word, phrase, symbol, or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods or services, so in principle, it shouldn’t be any more difficult to register a phrase with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) than it is to register a word or a design. 

Can you register a phrase? 

In practice, registering a phrase that is used as a tagline is more difficult because it is more likely to be descriptive of the goods or services with which it is used. However, if your tagline has become strongly associated in the minds of consumers with the goods and services in whose sale you use it, then you can register it. Of course, you will need to file a trademark application with the USPTO. The process for this can be complex and expensive, so consider hiring an experienced attorney to help you with the application. 

The process of registering a phrase 

You must file a trademark application with the USPTO to register a phrase. The application process has some wrinkles, so you should keep a few things in mind. 

First, you will need to determine whether your phrase consists of words and numbers only, or whether it contains – or consists of – something other than words and numbers, such as graphical elements, musical jingles, etc.  

Second, in filing your application in the USPTO, you will need to identify the goods and services on which you have been using your tagline with a high degree of specificity, using the common commercial names for these products. Failure to be sufficiently specific is the most frequent reason for the rejection of applications by the USPTO. 

Third, you will need to provide specimens (pictures of the product, screenshots of web pages, etc.) showing that the tagline is being used commercially, how it is being used, and how the goods and services being sold under it may be purchased.  

  • Finally, you will need to provide two important dates – the date on which you first used th tagline commercially anywhere in the world, and second, the date on which you used it for the first time in interstate commerce in the United States. Ascertaining these dates can be tricky, so you would be well-advised to seek a trademark attorney’s help in coming up with them. 

After the application is filed, it will be assigned to an examining attorney.  

Benefits of trademarking a phrase 

There are many benefits of trademarking a phrase, including: 

  • Protecting your brand: A trademarked phrase can help prevent others from using it in a way that could damage your brand. 
  • Making it easier to take legal action: If someone does use your trademarked phrase without permission, you may have an easier time taking legal action against them if you have a registered trademark. 
  • Adding value to your business: A strong trademark can add value to your business, making it more attractive to potential investors or buyers. 
  • Helping you stand out from the competition: A unique and well-protected trademark can help your business stand out. 
Reasons why a phrase cannot be trademarked 

Below are reasons your phrase may not be approved for trademark: 

  1. If the phrase is too generic, proving that you have exclusive rights to it may be challenging. 
  2. If the phrase is descriptive of your goods or services, it may be considered merely descriptive and not eligible for trademark protection. 
  3. If others use the phrase in the same industry, there could be a risk of diluting the strength of a trademark. 

While you can trademark a phrase, it is essential to understand the limitations of this type of intellectual property protection. If you are looking to trademark a phrase for use on merchandise, you will need to prove that the phrase has acquired “secondary meaning” in the marketplace. This means that consumers associate the phrase with your goods and services rather than its literal dictionary definition. If you can do this, congratulations — you have successfully navigated the tricky world of trademark law and can now enjoy the benefits of owning a registered trademark. 

By Suman Naresh

Suman is a graduate of Cambridge University and a member of the English Bar, and a former law professor at Cambridge, the University of Chicago, and Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. He has practiced, lectured, and published in the field of intellectual property for more than forty years. He is the CEO of Trademark ISG, LLC, which provides assistance and intellectual property support services to Joseph Root and Verena Benker.

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