Q: Can I protect a slogan that I want to print on T-shirts, bumper stickers and other items?
A: Maybe yes and maybe no. There are several possibilities here depending upon how you plan to use the slogan.
You'll have the best chances of "protecting" the slogan or, more correctly, creating a monopoly or offensive rights on it if it's used as a brand name. For example, a T-shirt with the slogan "Ajax Shirts Fit Your Bod" would be an example of a brand-name slogan. While this usage is rare and unlikely, if it does exist, your slogan is a trademark, or a symbol that's being used to show the brand of T-shirt you're wearing. If you're the first to use any word, group of words or other symbol as a brand name, it becomes a trademark and you acquire common-law rights in the mark. For example, your usage gives you the right to sue infringers without ever registering the mark with any government agency. You should indicate that it's a trademark by putting a "TM" superscript after the mark: Ajax Shirts Fit Your BodT.
However, it's far better to actually register your mark, since you'll have much easier sledding in court if you sue based on a registered mark rather than a common-law mark. If you'll be using the mark in your state only, you can register the mark with the trademark office of your state; if you'll be using the mark across state lines, register it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. While you have to actually be using the mark to register it with a state trademark office, you can apply to register it federally based on your intent to use it. Patent It Yourself gives the basics on applying for a patent. For federal registration, you can apply online at http://www.uspto.gov.
Now for the bad news: Your slogan probably isn't being used as a brand name but is probably just a clever slogan you're using to make a political or other statement, such as "Make Love, Not War." Unfortunately in this case, there's no way to monopolize it, since slogans and phrases not used as brand names aren't trademarks and can't be copyrighted. There's no other way to create a monopoly on a slogan. This means that once you use it on a shirt or bumper sticker, anyone can copy it freely and you'll have no rights against the copier in court.
However, there is one exception. If your slogan includes some significant artwork, such as some beautiful scrollwork or a drawing, you can monopolize the artwork (but not the words) by copyright. To do this, use the © symbol with your name and date near the artwork: © Sally Jones 2000. Then apply for a copyright registration.
David Pressman, a practicing intellectual property attorney, is author of the bestselling bookPatent It Yourselfand the interactive software program Patent It Yourself, both published by Nolo Press. Formerly an electronic engineer, David has more than 30 years' experience in the patent profession-as a patent examiner, a columnist for EDN Magazine and a patent law instructor at San Francisco State University. Patent It Yourself can be obtained in bookstores (brick-and-mortar and online), from the publisher (www.nolo.com) and through David's Web site (www.PatentItYourself.com).
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.