Let's Get Ready to Rumble: Trademarking Your Catch Phrase

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You and your significant other go to the movies. During the coming attractions, you nearly choke on some Raisinettes when you hear something familiar: a series of catchy words spoken by the lead character. That was your catch phrase! You'd even considered printing it up on some t-shirts. Was it stolen? Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not. This article will give you some tips on ensuring that your catch phrase idea stays just that, yours.

A catch phrase is an expression usually popularized through repeated use by a real person or fictional character. Today, catch phrases are increasingly seen as an important component of marketing and promoting a product or service. See if you recognize some of these well-known catch phrases:

"Ancient Chinese secret, huh?" - from a Calgon commercial

"Dy-no-mite!" - Jimmie Walker as J.J. Evans from "Good Times"

"Hasta la vista, baby." - The Terminator

"Show me the money!" - Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire"

"Whazzup?" - Budweiser ad campaign

"Where's the Beef?" - Clara Peller in a Wendy's commercial

A catch phrase is essentially a trademark. A trademark is any word, name, slogan, design, or symbol used in commerce to identify a particular product and distinguish it from others. Like copyrights, trademarks are protected as a form of property. Owners of valid trademarks are granted exclusive rights to their use in commerce. The main purpose of trademark protection is to increase the reliability of marketplace identification and thereby help consumers select goods and services. A distinctive trademark quickly identifies a product, and over time the mark may be equated with a particular level of quality.

As with copyrights, legal rights to trademarks arise automatically without governmental formalities. But unlike copyrights, trademark rights don't begin at the moment a word, symbol, or phrase is first scribbled on paper. Rather, trademark rights stem from the actual use of a distinctive mark in commerce.

If you develop a catch phrase, you should register it with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). You might wonder why this is important, but the benefits of federal registration will hopefully convince you. First, registration means the trademark is legally valid. This protects you in case of an infringement lawsuit. If you've registered the mark, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to show why the registered mark is undeserving of protection. Second, registration is a nationwide notice of the registrant's claim of ownership. That means someone else using the mark in another part of the country can't claim territorial ownership rights. Third, federal registration comes with the right to file infringement lawsuits in the federal courts. In case you're not already convinced, registration simply serves as a deterrent for others who won't use your mark in fear of a legal battle.

Federal registration only goes so far. The owner of the mark still bears the burden of protecting it. The primary method of protecting a catch phrase is to file an infringement lawsuit. The plaintiff may sue for financial damages, an injunction against further use, or both. The basic test in infringement lawsuits is whether the allegedly infringing phrase is similar enough to create a "likelihood of confusion."

In short, here's how to get the maximum mileage out of your catch phrase: Develop a distinctive one, use it in interstate commerce, and register it with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Following these three steps will ensure that when you hear that movie catch phrase, you'll be saying "Show me the money" instead of "D'oh!"