Before using a specific phrase in your own work or for profit, it is important to check whether your choice of phrase is copyrighted or trademarked. You might face a civil lawsuit if you use a copyrighted or trademarked phrase without the owner's permission. A copyright grants legal protection to an artist's work and a trademark protects a phrase, a word, a symbol, a design or a combination of those elements that the public identifies with a specific person, business or organization. For example, a business slogan would be trademarked, but a distinct phrase that is part of a literary work would be copyrighted. Registration of a copyright or trademark allows the owner to take legal action against unauthorized use. Copyrighted phrases are usually registered with the United States Copyright Office, and trademarked phrases are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Go to the Trademark Electronic Search System at the official website of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Use the "Basic Word Mark Search (New User)" search. Enter the phrase into the "Search Term" field; leave the default search options set for a basic search. The default search options are "Combined Word Mark" with "All Search Terms (AND)." These settings will return results containing all the words in the phrase and search word variations. View results to see trademarked phrases.
Widen the search and search again if you're not sure of the exact phrase. Change the "Results Must Contain" search option to "Any Search Terms (OR)." This will return results that contain parts of the phrase you are searching for.
Click the "Logout" button beneath the search fields when finished.
Go to the official website of the United States Copyright Office to use its online "Public Catalog Search" for works copyrighted after 1978. Use the "Keyword" search field for phrases in copyright records. Surround the phrase with double quotation marks to search for the precise phrase.
Check the results for the phrase you want. Results are shown by the title of the works that contain the phrase, and are arranged alphabetically.
Search again using the "Keyword" search if the exact phrase you are looking for doesn't appear in the results. Use some distinctive words from the phrase. For example, if searching, "The brown shoehorn," omit the words "the" and "brown." "Shoehorn" is the less common word. Put a "+" in front of each search word to narrow the search.
Tips & Warnings
Go to a local library to view the copyright card catalog to search works copyrighted before 1978. You must know the title of the work that contains the phrase to search this catalog.
Registration of trademarks and copyrights is not required by law.
Even if the phrase is not registered, the owner might still have rights if the phrase is in use, so contact an attorney experienced in copyright law for assistance.
References & Resources
- United States Patent and Trademark Office: Trademark, Copyright or Patent?
- United States Copyright Office: Copyright Basics
- United States Copyright Office: The Copyright Card Catalog
- United States Patent and Trademark Office: Tess Tips
- United States Patent and Trademark Office: Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS)
- United States Copyright Office: Public Catalog
- Ciaran Griffin/Lifesize/Getty Images