I’m not sure what I like better – reading T-shirts or funny cards. I’m the one laughing out loud so everyone wonders, “What could possibly be so funny?” As much as I love those great T-shirt designs and slogans, I can’t help these creative minds to protect their unique phrases with copyright. The Copyright Law extends to works of art, including literary work, but it expressly exempts slogans and phrases from protection.
The only available protection is trademark, and only if the phrase or slogan is indicative of the source of the product. It must be a brand identifier that a consumer makes the association between the phrase and a brand. The brand owner will need proof that this is the case to be successful.
A recent case of Gorski v. the Gymboree Corp. involved the phrase “Lettuce turnip the beet.” While copyright protection was not available for the T-shirt design, common law trademark protection was potentially available, and the case could go to trial on that issue.
Working with an experienced trademark attorney can help you develop a strong case to support claims of secondary meaning and develop a viable protection strategy for valuable (money making) T-shirt phrases.