Can I trademark a slogan, especially on a tee shirt?
No – in general.
The US Trademark Office says:
Slogans or phrases used on items such as t-shirts and sweatshirts, jewelry, and ceramic plates have been refused registration as ornamentation that purchasers will perceive as conveying a message rather than indicating the source of the goods. See Damn I’m Good Inc. v. Sakowitz, Inc., 514 F. Supp. 1357, 212 USPQ 684 (S.D.N.Y. 1981) (“DAMN I’M GOOD,” inscribed in large letters on bracelets and used on hang tags affixed to the goods, found to be without any source-indicating significance); In re Pro-Line Corp., 28 USPQ2d 1141 (TTAB 1993) (BLACKER THE COLLEGE SWEETER THE KNOWLEDGE primarily ornamental slogan that is not likely to be perceived as source indicator); In re Dimitri’s Inc., 9 USPQ2d 1666 (TTAB 1988) (“SUMO,” as used in connection with stylized representations of sumo wrestlers on applicant’s T-shirts and baseball-style caps serves merely as an ornamental feature of applicant’s goods); In re Astro-Gods Inc., 223 USPQ 621, 624 (TTAB 1984) (“[T]he designation ‘ASTRO GODS’ and design is not likely to be perceived as anything other than part of the thematic whole of the ornamentation of applicant’s shirts.”); In re Original Red Plate Co., 223 USPQ 836 (TTAB 1984) (“YOU ARE SPECIAL TODAY” for ceramic plates found to be without any source-indicating significance).
Matter that is purely ornamental or decorative does not function as a trademark and is unregistrable on either the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register.
The significance of the proposed mark is a factor to consider when determining whether ornamental matter serves a trademark function. Common expressions and symbols (e.g., the peace symbol, “smiley face,” or the phrase “Have a Nice Day”) are normally not perceived as marks.
Subject matter that is merely a decorative feature does not identify and distinguish the applicant’s goods and, thus, does not function as a trademark. A decorative feature may include words, designs, slogans, or other trade dress. This matter should be refused registration because it is merely ornamentation and, therefore, does not function as a trademark as required by §§1, 2, and 45 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§1051, 1052, and 1127.
What this means is if your slogan is merely displayed on the t-shirt to convey a message and is does not identify the source of the product, then it probably is not eligible for trademark registration. Some slogans are protectable it depends on the primary use of the mark and the goods to be identified.
Use of a designation or slogan to convey advertising or promotional information, rather than to identify and indicate the source of the services, is not service mark use. See In re Standard Oil Co., 275 F.2d 945, 125 USPQ 227 (C.C.P.A. 1960) (GUARANTEED STARTING found to be ordinary words that convey information about the services, not a service mark for the services of “winterizing” motor vehicles); In re Melville Corp., 228 USPQ 970 (TTAB 1986) (BRAND NAMES FOR LESS found to be informational phrase that does not function as a mark for retail store services); In re Brock Residence Inns, Inc., 222 USPQ 920 (TTAB 1984) (FOR A DAY, A WEEK, A MONTH OR MORE so highly descriptive and informational in nature that purchasers would be unlikely to perceive it as an indicator of the source of hotel services); In re Wakefern Food Corp., 222 USPQ 76 (TTAB 1984) (WHY PAY MORE found to be a common commercial phrase that does not serve to identify grocery store services); In re Gilbert Eiseman, P.C., 220 USPQ 89 (TTAB 1983) (IN ONE DAY not used as source identifier but merely as a component of advertising matter that conveyed a characteristic of applicant’s plastic surgery services); In re European-American Bank & Trust Co., 201 USPQ 788 (TTAB 1979) (slogan THINK ABOUT IT found to be an informational or instructional phrase that would not be perceived as a mark for banking services); In re Restonic Corp., 189 USPQ 248 (TTAB 1975) (phrase used merely to advertise goods manufactured and sold by applicant’s franchisees does not serve to identify franchising services).
What this means is if your slogan serves as advertising copy then it probably is not eligible for service or trademark registration.