How to Find Copyrighted or Trademark Phrases

By Lee Hall, J.D.

How to Find Copyrighted or Trademark Phrases

By Lee Hall, J.D.

When thinking of using a catchy phrase in your marketing campaign, you have to remember that someone may have already used it before and that it could potentially be someone else's intellectual property.

Man typing at laptop

Copyright law protects unique and original literary works, but it rarely applies to phrases. It sometimes deals with catch phrases and slogans, especially those integrated into a design.

Simple online research can help you determine if the phrase you'd like to use is free of copyright or trademark protection. If it is, you can use it without fear of infringement or legal challenges.

1. Check for copyrighted phrases.

Copyright is the exception for short phrases, not the norm. Phrases are simply groups of words, free for everyone to use. Moreover, an idea cannot receive copyright protection.

When, then, can copyright protect a turn of phrase? The answer boils down to the uniqueness and value of the phrase, its intended use, and how essential the phrase is to that purpose.

To find copyrighted phrases, run an online search (but note that the U.S. Copyright Office lists registrations before 1978 exclusively in the Public Records at the Library of Congress).

If you find no results, your search term is not registered in the database. Be sure to try the "other search options" for a thorough search. If results do appear, you can check the entry for the details and scope of the copyright.

2. Check for registered trademark phrases.

A patent protects an invention. Short phrases have the innovative quality that trademark law protects when they become connected with a specific brand. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) defines trademark as "a word, phrase, symbol or design," or a blend of those elements that signifies the offerings of one business from those of others.

The USPTO database is a free resource. It offers several mechanisms for finding registrations or applications for slogans. If a slogan's use occurs outside your industry, the existing registration does not bar yours.

If your search uncovers a similar phrase, find out if the prior registrant's protection is still live. If not, you may still be able to use it.

3. Keep some general rules in mind.

Use internet search engines to round out your efforts. Keep in mind the following points as you run your search:

  • The owner of copyrighted and trademark work can register the work, providing a basis for infringement actions. Yet, because copyright and trademark can inhere in a unique and original work even without registration, phrases that do not turn up in a formal search could still have protection.
  • Publishers in professional areas, such as the legal field, often use similar topic titles and headers. This does not constitute infringement.
  • While common marketing slogans typically cannot be protected, if two slogans integrate similar design elements, a court may find that one advertiser infringed on another's protected work. Courts have also protected authors from marketers of merchandise emblazoned with well-known phrases from films, books, or speeches.

While short slogans and phrases rarely receive the protection of copyright, some fall under intellectual property law. Knowledge of the law and a rigorous search can serve the professional writer or marketer well.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.