Monday, January 5, 2009

Dear Rich: I have a question. I have coined a phrase that I predict will be adopted as the catch phrase for a political and economic era that is quickly approaching. I would like to claim credit for coming up with this phrase, but prefer it to manifest itself, rather than seeding the media with it. Is there any means of laying legal claim to a phrase only -- when there is no product associated with it? If so, would registration ever entitle me to any sort of monetary gain? I'm so glad you asked. The short answers to your questions are, "No," and "I don't think so."
Copyright law won't protect short phrases or slogans because they are considered "de minimis," or too small to qualify for copyright. (I've put together a helpful article on the subject.) However, if you use the phrase in connection with a product or service, you may be able to protect and federally register it under trademark law. The rights you acquire under trademark law would (with the exception of famous trademarks) allow you to only stop others from using it on competing services or products. In rare instances, movie companies have stopped the use of well-known phrases such as "Me Tarzan, You Jane," or "E.T. Phone Home" on merchandise (even though the Dear Rich staff maintains that the latter phrase was never used in the movie). In summary, there is no type of registration that will protect the phrase unless it is used in conjunction with a product or service. (By the way, the Dear Rich staff once met the man who claimed to have coined the phrase, "Let's Go Mets" -- a claim that the staff later sadly learned was subject to dispute.)