Can I Copyright a Phrase?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The short answer to this question is no, you cannot copyright a phrase for the purpose of legal protection. Copyright laws primarily cover "original works of authorship" that are finalized in fixed form of expression. This can include fixed forms of unique ideas, compositions, plays, novels, song lyrics and so on, but they do not cover individual words, common ideas or short phrases. While the desire to protect a phrase closely associated with a business or an artistic concept may be understandable, US federal copyright laws would not offer much in the way of enforceable protection.

A phrase cannot be copyrighted.
A phrase cannot be copyrighted.

Having said that, there is another way to obtain legal protection for a unique phrase. Individuals and companies can apply for a trademark by going through the US Patents and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO can assign registered trademark status to a short phrase if originality can be satisfactorily proven. For example, the short phrase "Just Do It." followed by a distinctive "swoosh" graphic is a trademark of the Nike company. Another shoe company could not legally use that trademarked phrase in its own advertising or promotional materials.

Individuals and companies can apply for a trademark by going through the US Patents and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Individuals and companies can apply for a trademark by going through the US Patents and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Some people may want to copyright a phrase intended for use as a bumper sticker slogan or other for-profit venture. The current copyright laws in the United States would automatically assign a copyright to a phrase or title or other unique or original expression. There would be no need to submit the short phrase to the official copyright office, but some people may want to establish the creation date in order to protect themselves from copycats.

There is a good reason why it is nearly impossible to copyright a phrase. Copyright laws are only effective as long as the copyright holder remains diligent about prosecuting violators. If an individual decided to copyright something as simple as "Hello, may I help you?", he or she would shortly be overwhelmed by the number of potential copyright violations. The phrase would be in such common usage that enforcement of a copyright would be virtually impossible.

If the short phrase were trademarked, however, legal enforcement would be much less stressful. Violations of a registered trademark are easier to prove in court, and the phrase is more likely to be unique and original. The word "threepeat" is actually trademarked, for example, although very few people would have an occasion to use it for commercial reasons. The owner of that trademark may decide if any future usage of that unique word is worth the expense of legal trademark enforcement or not.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


If I wished to proceed with applying for a trademark to protect my unique phrase for a bumper sticker, for instance, would I need to hire a patent attorney to do a search? Or is there another kind of attorney for that?


Explain McDonalds' "I'm lovin' it." Three words.


If I created a dictionary of 500 words by using some of the definitions for each word that are found in other dictionaries, can I copyright the smaller dictionary that I created?


Can a company copyright the use of the word "Caution" on a dog collar?


Trying to copyright a common phrase such as "I'm not afraid" would probably be more trouble than it's worth. If that were part of a musician or comedian's unique identification, like Larry the Cable Guy's "Get 'Er Done!" catchphrase, then it might be worth getting the whole image and phrase copyrighted or even trademarked for merchandising purposes. But that still wouldn't mean the man behind Larry the Cable Guy could collect money every time someone shouted "Get 'Er Done!".

The only thing a copyright would do is protect Larry's company from competitors who put out their own products with "Get 'Er Done!" written on them. Something as common as "I'm Not Afraid" probably would reach that level of popularity, so the artist would just have to put up with others using that particular phrase.


Can artists copyright phrases, like "I'm Not Afraid?"


I host a Beatles radio show for the last 10+ years and use the phrase Beatle Years and Beyond. My counterpart in England claims to own the phrase Beatles and Beyond. He calls my boss with threats and etc., etc. Does this idiot have the right to do so, legally?


so the short answer then is no, but the long answer is yes but; it's normally too hard to enforce to be worth the effort of copyrighting, unless it is 100 percent original and you are the only one currently using it.


Can I copyright a management concept? For eg:- 7-S Framework by McKinsey, Porter's 5 force model by Micael Porter, PDCA-Deming Cycle?

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