Can I trademark a quote?
Yes, you can trademark a quote - provided that you use the quote as either a brand name or slogan for your products or services. A quote can't be trademarked in and of itself, it needs to be part of the branding message of a product or service.
Coca-Cola, Honda, and Microsoft conjure an instant reaction from your average consumer. These are brand names carefully crafted around a corporate image, seasoned with a dash of notoriety or infamy. Branding agencies work hard to make these distinctive phrases as much a part of our everyday speech as the other words we all say. Untold fortunes are spent trying to insert commerce into the common language. However, sometimes the simple words we say become famous in their own right, creating an indelible impression, tied forever to the personalities who uttered them.
We're talking, of course, about those hilariously, ridiculously, and legally justifiably trademarked quotes or phrases that have become as much a part of our culture as their creators. Phrases like “duh, winning”, “you're fired”, and “Linsanity” take us back to a cultural moment, good or bad, and now stand reserved for consumer merchandising and cease-and-desist letters. As curious as the concept may sound, the practice is not only legally permitted, but oftentimes, a good business move.
Examples of Trademarked Quotes
There are many examples of famous quotes or phrases that have been trademarked. Let's look at a few.
Let's Get Ready to Rumble!
The famous quote "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" is a registered service mark of Michael Buffer via his Ready to Rumble, Inc. According to ABCNews, the estimated value of the catchphrase is roughly $400 million dollars.
Those five words -- 'Let's Get Ready to Rumble' -- have made the trademark holder the undisputed king of boxing ring announcers and a hugely successful entrepreneur.
By trademarking his catchphrase, Buffer has generated over $400 million in revenue, selling the rights to music, video games, merchandise and while making personal appearances. His business venture is so successful, Buffer doesn't even have to say his catchphrase to make money. He makes more from the trademark than he does announcing in the ring. (Source)
Show Me the Money
The famous line from the 1996 movie Jerry McGuire has been the subject of a few trademarks:
The registrations are all from a company named CJ Eu0026amp;M Corporation from Korea and it is specific to a design/logo covering many products:
Memorial cups of precious metals; trophies of precious metal; jewelry cases; key rings, namely, keyrings of precious metal and key fobs of precious metal; clocks; desk clocks; wristwatches; precious metals and alloys thereof; earrings; personal ornaments of precious metal; bangle bracelets; ornamental pins; brooches, namely, jewelry brooches; trinkets in the nature of jewelry; ornaments, namely, jewelry ornaments; jewelry, namely, necklaces; chains, namely, jewelry chains; pendants, namely, jewelry pendants; model figures made of precious metal; jewels and precious metals
Perhaps the most infamous “signature phrase” registration, Hilton fortune heiress Paris capitalized on the popular phrase, "that's hot" at the height of her relevance to great effect. The diva was granted registration of three trademarks in 2007 for use on men's and women's clothing, electronic devices, and alcoholic beverages. This included promotion of a canned Italian-style sparkling wine called Rich Prosecco.
However, while this netted the reality star some money in the process, she discovered quickly that her trademark phrase was not without its critics. Hilton leveled litigation at Hallmark after the release of greeting cards with her likeness and phrase in use. Hallmark fought the suit initially, claiming that the usage was parody and therefore protected. The suit ended with an undisclosed out-of-court settlement, and Paris' phrase remains, for better or worse, registered today.
Reality TV is not without its flash-in-the-pan success stories, but for some, the camera time is not enough. Storage Wars auctioneer Dave Hester attempted to register his signature phrase “YUUUP!” when the show hit it big. However, singer Trey Songz, who allegedly had been “yup”-ing people since 2009, had something to say about the registration.
The legal battle reached into the interesting realm of sound trademarks. According to the law, “A sound mark depends upon aural perception of the listener which may be as fleeting as the sound itself unless, of course, the sound is so inherently different or distinctive that it attaches to the subliminal mind of the listener to be awakened when heard and to be associated with the source or event with which it is struck.” Hester's argument claimed that Songz version “resembles an animal-like or non-human squeal which begins with a distinct ‘yeeee' sound before finishing with a squeal-like ‘uuuup' sound.” An interesting (if not mundane) debate to say the least.
The Big Game
Possibly the most rich area of culture, with respect to “signature phrases”, is sports. With a bevy of characters, jargon, and ego, it's no wonder that the arena breeds so many registrations. Robert Griffin III's draft may have seen the most prolific series of registrations in sports history. His registrations include “RG3”, “RGIII”, “no pressure no diamonds”, “work hard stay humble”, and “light you up”, each with the intent of establishing the former quarterback's “brand”. Given the length of football careers (his was seasons) many players will be trademark holders longer than they will continue to be pro athletes.
Interestingly, Griffin's trademark deluge may have been a demonstration of some real business savvy. Jeremy Lin's hot-streak with the New York Knicks lead to the widespread usage of the phrase “Linsanity”, which naturally lead to the promising point guard's attempted trademark. However, to the upstart's surprise, he was not the first entity considered. After much toil the player remains the sole competitor for the phrase, but the scenario demonstrates how important registering key phrases really is.
Another case of trademark protection comes in the form of Larry Birkhead's registration of “Goodnight my sweet Anna baby”. After the late Anna Nicole's passing in 2007, the father of their child was advised by his counsel to register the phrase, which he reportedly uttered to the beloved figure each night before they retired to bed. The move proved fortuitous, as news outlets and celebrity magazines were eager to use the phrase in the figure's passing. It's difficult to determine whether the move was an attempt to capitalize on the star's death, or a sentimental protection of a cherished phrase. In either instance, the move shows the importance of federal trademark registration for any organization or entity wishing to have their cultural capital protected.
Trademark, or Copyright?
This is a common point of confusion, but quotes, names, logos, or slogans are protected by trademarks. A copyright provides intellectual property protection to an original creative work, such as a book, a film, or a painting. You can read more in our full article on trademarks vs. copyrights.
The Limits of Trademarking Quotes
In an age of social media and public demonstration, it is highly unlikely that we have seen the last of trademarked words and phrases. But regardless of their accepted merit, no one can argue that the protections afforded by trademarking any property, be it logo or signature saying, can prove valuable to business savvy companies and figureheads. After all, if “Jeah“, “D'OH!“, and “you cannot be serious” can receive consideration, then, truly, little is outside the realm of possibility.
That said, if you register a quote as a trademark, it will not prevent people from using the quote in conversation (just like common words and phrases) - trademark rights do not extend that far. The trademark will, however, allow you to use the quote as a slogan without the fear of imitation or abuse by companies offering a competing product or service. As with other types of marks, the trademark price in the US is $350 per class of goods or services.
You should always seek professional legal advice and check to see if there are any similar trademarks that could cause the United States Patent and Trademark Office to deny your application to copyright a quote. A licensed trademark attorney will discover any other marks that may prevent your application from being approved during the trademark search process.