Updated November 11, 2020:

How to Patent a Phrase

While you can learn how to patent an idea here, unfortunately, it is not possible to patent a phrase. Instead, you can trademark a phrase by registering it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Before registering, someone looking to trademark a phrase would need to make sure that it is available and not currently trademarked by anyone else. 

Individuals and businesses can trademark any phrase, which has a secondary meaning that connects to a product or service.

Reasons to Trademark Your Phrase

  • It helps you create unique marketing materials. A phrase can be an important part of your long-term marketing strategy. However, if your competitors profit from it, your phrase will quickly lose its value.  This includes "catchphrases," which gains popularity through their use by a person, or even a fictional character. Catchphrases also are now an important part of a marketing strategy. A registered trademark grants you exclusive rights within your industry to use your phrase in commerce anywhere in the country. It trumps territorial ownership rights to the phrase, like those used by a small bricks-and-mortar business operating in just one city. Although, in most circumstances, a business in a non-competing sector can use your phrase for profit.  
  • It increases brand recognition. When a phrase is exclusive to your marketing materials, customers learn to connect the phrase to your product. The best phrases become brands in their own right, like "Just Do It" for Nike and "Life's Good" for LG.
  • It can appeal to customers. If consumers like your trademarked phrase, they'll probably like your product. If they are undecided between your product and a similar one, remembering your phrase could sway them towards your brand. Over time, a well-known phrase can suggest your product is a quality one. 
  • It can create buzz. While a trademark stops people from profiting from your phrase, it doesn't stop them from using it in everyday conversation. This is a good thing because it can help a phrase go viral. When people use your trademarked phrase they think of your brand, even if they aren't purchasing. This helps create goodwill for your brand.  
  • It improves your legal standing. When you've registered your trademarked phrase, you can sue any competing business that profits from it for damages. Similarly, you're protected if another company files an infringement lawsuit against you. The prosecutor must show your registered phrase doesn't deserve legal protection, which is very difficult to prove.

Getting a Trademark

Any distinctive phrase used in interstate commerce can be trademarked simply by using it regularly and openly. Also, use the trademark symbol, ™, anywhere the phrase is printed. These acts give your phrase some limited protection. You can file a lawsuit against any competitor using your phrase that doesn't have the same history of regular use because you've already given "constructive notice" it belongs to you. However, it's harder to win a case against a business that has a registered trademark for the phrase.

For extra protection, register your phrase's trademark. If you only want to use the phrase within your state, you could register it with your state's trademark office. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) gives national coverage. This body approves new U.S. trademarks and monitors existing ones to prevent infringement. It is suggested that you register your phrase early, as proving ownership can be difficult once it enters common use.

Before You Register Your Trademark

  • Learn more about trademarks. Before getting a registered trademark, you should understand more about it. The Trademark Basics section on the USPTO website is a good place to start.
  • Confirm your phrase satisfies the trademark "original works" guidelines listed on the USPTO website.
  • Search the USPTO's Trademark Electronic Search System for your phrase. Enter your phrase into the "Word and/or Design Marks" section, under "Search Marks." This will determine whether another person or business has already trademarked your phrase. Search within the categories you intend to use your phrase. If your phrase has already been trademarked, you'll need to develop a new one. You should also worry about phrases similar to yours, as the USPTO won't trademark anything with the potential to confuse consumers.
  • Decide how you'll use your phrase. This step is easy if you're already using the phrase. If you're not, you'll need to plan your intended usage.
  • Find out your trademarked phrase's field class. This is the category of products and services attached to your phrase. The USPTO's Acceptable Identification of Goods and Services Manual lists these categories. You can select just one or many classes, depending on how you'll use your phrase.
  • Choose your phrase's format. Think about your preferred font and format, such as capital letters or bold type.

Steps to Register a Trademark

  • Download and complete the Initial Application Form. If your phrase isn't already trademarked, you can start the trademarking process by downloading this PDF. Complete the application form on your computer or print it out to complete offline. Make sure to include all relevant information including:
    • Your name
    • Your address
    • Your phone number
    • Other information about you or the company you represent
    • The exact phrase you want to be trademarked formatted as you'll use it. Attach or upload a file containing your phrase in the correct typeface and colors. 
    • Your phrase's field class or classes
    • How you created the phrase
    • How you'll use the phrase
  • Proofread your application. Make sure you haven't made any spelling errors or left sections incomplete. Mistakes can delay your approval. 
  • Submit the form and pay the filing fee. Mail applications with one field class cost $275 and electronic applications cost $325. The same amounts apply for every additional class. This amount is non-refundable. You should send a check with your mail application made out to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  
  • Record the USPTO serial number. This is the receipt for your application, so make sure you keep it safe.

Steps for After You File Your Trademark

  • You may receive an Office Action. This means you need to rework your application. You might rewrite your statement of use, clarify the information you've given, or add more details. A trademark lawyer can help with these alterations. Send your response to the trademark examiner.
  • Once your application is approved, you should use the registered trademark symbol ® whenever you publish your phrase. 
  • Enforce your trademark. Send a cease-and-desist letter if anyone uses your phrase for profit. If the other party doesn't comply, you can file an infringement lawsuit.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do I need a lawyer?

A trademark lawyer can help you submit a good application with a high chance of success. If your application faces opposition, an attorney can help you navigate the legal issues. Your lawyer can also answer any questions you might have and offer advice on the trademarking process.

  • Is there any other way to protect my phrase?

You could trademark your phrase as part of your brand's name. This is known as a brand-name slogan. This tactic is rare, but it's another alternative if you're struggling to show your phrase specifically refers to your brand. Brand-name slogans have a much clearer link between the brand and phrase.

  • Why can't I copyright my phrase?

Copyright only protects longer literary works, like poems, songs, or novels. Phrases are much too short to get copyright protection.

  • What's the difference between a trademark, a copyright, and a patent?

Trademarks protect words, symbols, and other identifiers connected to goods and services. Copyrights protect literary and artistic works. Patents protect inventions and changes that make them better.

Trademarks also have no time limit, unlike copyrights and patents. They usually only expire when their owners stop using them. Trademarks can also expire when they become generic descriptors. For example, Thermos was once trademarked, but it's now a generic descriptor used for any vacuum bottle.

  • Do I need a brand or business to trademark a phrase?

Typically you can only trademark a phrase connected to a brand. That means you can't just trademark witty phrases you think might suit bumper stickers or T-shirts. That's because people won't think of a particular brand when they read such phrases.

However, if you create a unique artwork surrounding the phrase, the entire work can be registered for copyright. This costs just $35. Nothing stops someone else from taking your phrase and using it in another context, but it offers some limited protection. Depending on the type of artwork, a design patent may even be appropriate. A good trademark prosecution, intellectual property, or marketing attorney can help you get the best protection.

  • Do I need to use my phrase before registering it?

This depends on where you're registering. You must already use your phrase in commerce to register it with a state trademark office. USPTO registration only requires intent and, so, you must start using your phrase within 12 months. If you don't, the USPTO could cancel your inactive trademark. 

  • What happens if someone uses my trademarked phrase or a similar one?

You can usually file an infringement lawsuit against any person or business making similar products or operating within the same industry using your trademark. You could ask for financial damages, the entity to stop using your phrase, or both. If the person or business operates in a different sector, there is usually no infringement case.

However, if a trademark is very famous, it's protected in all sectors. In these cases, Congress believes any business using an iconic trademark could dilute the original brand. If you believe this applies to you, consult an intellectual property lawyer.

You can file infringement lawsuits for phrases that are identical or similar to your trademark. A judge will rule against any party using a phrase that could cause a "likelihood of confusion."

Trademarking a phrase is a straightforward process, but an intellectual property lawyer can guide you if you find any part confusing. You can post your need through UpCounsel to get free custom quotes from the top 5% of intellectual property attorneys on UpCounsel.