Are Company Slogans Copyrighted?

By John Parker

Federal copyright law grants exclusive rights to the use of “original works of authorship,” whether or not they are published. Copyright law protects a broad range of works, including books, poems, songs, paintings and even computer programs. However, copyright law normally does not protect short phrases, such as a company slogan. Trademark law, on the other hand, specifically protects slogans that companies use to identify themselves as the maker of a product.

Federal copyright law grants exclusive rights to the use of “original works of authorship,” whether or not they are published. Copyright law protects a broad range of works, including books, poems, songs, paintings and even computer programs. However, copyright law normally does not protect short phrases, such as a company slogan. Trademark law, on the other hand, specifically protects slogans that companies use to identify themselves as the maker of a product.

Works Protected by Copyright

Copyright law protects literary, musical, dramatic, pantomime, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audio, visual and architectural works. This protection occurs automatically upon creation of the work in some tangible format, be it written text, graphic representation, or audio or visual recording. Although the owner is not required to register the copyright with the federal government, a copyright must be registered before it may be fully enforced in court. Copyright protection lasts for 70 years after the author's death. If the right is owned by anyone other than the work's author, copyright protection extends for 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of its creation, whichever period is shorter.

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Works Not Protected by Copyright

Specifically excluded from copyright protection are ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods, concepts, principles or discoveries. Also ineligible for copyright protection are titles, names, pseudonyms, catchwords, catchphrases, mottos, slogans and short advertising expressions. As a rule, company slogans are not copyrightable.

Trademark Protection

Trademark protection is available for slogans that meet the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's definition of a trademark: “a word, phrase, symbol or design" used to identify and distinguish the source of a product from another. Similar protections extend to service marks, which identify the producer of a service rather than a product. To qualify for trademark protection, a slogan must be distinctive and closely identified with a commercial product or service. Unlike copyrights, which expire after specific time periods, a trademark registration may be extended indefinitely by filing renewal applications.

Trademark Vs. Registered Trademark

Those who wish to claim rights to a specific mark often follow it with the symbol “TM” to denote ownership or that a formal trademark application has been filed but has not yet been granted. The symbol “®” indicates that an application for trademark protection of the mark has been granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Registration of a Trademark

Registration of a trademark is an involved process. The application must identify the basis for the trademark filing: either proof the mark is already used in commerce or will be in the near future. The applicant must also search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database to confirm the mark has not already been claimed by another applicant.

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