Wondering how to patent a phrase for a T-shirt? If your T-shirt design has symbols, words, or other marks that uniquely distinguish it from other T-shirts on the market you can obtain a trademark to protect your design from others who might wish to capitalize on your intellectual property.

In simple terms, a patent is the right to produce, license, and sell inventions. A design patent protects nonfunctional, original designs on products like shoes, handbags, and jewelry. Functional items and individual products may not be covered by a design patent.

Graphic designs are covered by copyright. A copyright is automatic and does not require registration with the government. As long as you put your idea in fixed form, such as a digital graphic or paper sketch, it is considered to be copyrighted. However, if another person does steal your design, you won't be able to sue him or her until your design has been registered.

Steps to Patent a Phrase for a T-Shirt

  1. Decide which kind of shirt on which you plan to use the design - Before filing a trademark application, you'll need to select a category from the U.S. Acceptable Identification of Goods and Services Manual that best fits your product description. You can search the USPTO's online database to help you select a category.
  2. Search for similar existing trademarks - You'll only be able to obtain trademark protection if your design is easily distinguishable from other already existing design trademarks. Using the USPTO's database, use keywords and other search parameters to make sure your design qualifies for protection before you spend the time and money to continue filling out and submitting the application.
  3. Determine your basis for filing the application - This isn't just a personal or business decision; the USPTO requires you to choose either “use in commerce” or “intent to use.” Choose the former if you're already selling your product or you've already licensed the design. Choose the latter if you haven't used the design yet but wish to do so. This will require a submitting an additional form and making a payment prior to trademark registration.
  4. Prepare and submit your trademark application. Using the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) to complete and file your trademark application, along with drawings of the design. You can use either the regular TEAS form or the TEAS Plus form. The TEAS Plus form offers lower filing fees than the standard form, but it also has stricter requirements.

How to File a Trademark Application

You can submit your application for trademark registration either electronically or by mail. The advantage to completing your application online is that fees are lower and the processing time is much quicker.

Filing an online trademark application costs $35 per registration. To register online, go to the homepage of the Copyright Office website at www.copyright.gov and click on the eCo icon.

If you'd rather not file online, your next best method of registering a basic claim is by using the fill-in form CO. This generic form is used to register a single work of visual or performing arts, as well as sound recordings, literary works, motion pictures, and single-issue serials.

Fill out the form on your computer. You'll notice that a barcode is created for each page. This barcode ensures that your application will be processed in a timely and efficient manner.

Once complete, print out the form and sign it. Do not write anywhere else on the form. Mail it to the Copyright Office. Make sure to include the filing fee and the deposit amount. Filing a Form CO costs $50 per registration.

Trademark registration becomes valid on the date the Copyright Office receives all necessary documents and elements in their acceptable forms, regardless of the time it takes to actually process the application and then mail the certificate of registration to you. However, in some jurisdictions, such as New York, a copyright owner may only sue another party for infringement after they've received the official certificate of registration.

For more information regarding copyright restrictions, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website. If you're considering seeking legal protection for your intellectual property, it's also a good idea to consult a legal professional with experience in trademark and patent law.

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