The Briefing Podcast: The Protectability of Short Phrases

“Show me the money.” “Who you gonna call?” “Go Ahead. Make my day.” While catchphrases like these often hold immense value and creators of these phrases may seek to prevent others from using them under any circumstances, the protectability of short phrases is not always straightforward.

When it comes to quoting a short phrase in another creative work such as a book, TV show, movie, or song, the author of the phrase cannot prevent its use in this manner. Short phrases are not protectable under U.S. Copyright law. According to Copyright Office policy, slogans and short phrases lack the necessary amount of authorship to qualify for copyright protection. This applies regardless of the creativity, catchiness, novelty, or distinctiveness of the short phrase Even if a short phrase is unique and stands out, it cannot be registered with the Copyright Office.

Although a short phrase is not protectable under Copyright and thus cannot be the subject of a copyright infringement claim, it does not mean that all uses of a short phrase are automatically permissible.  Short phrases can be protected as a trademark if the short phrase is used as a trademark.  Trademark protection is the most effective form of intellectual property (IP) protection for short phrases. If a short phrase is distinctive and used in connection with goods or services, it can be eligible for trademark protection. A prime example is Nike’s “Just Do It,” which has become a well-known trademark.

When creating products like television shows or motion pictures with global reach, clearance must be considered from a global perspective. Just because something is not actionable or protectable in the United States does not mean it enjoys the same status in other countries.

The protectability of short phrases is a complex and multifaceted topic. Understanding the legal landscape surrounding their use is crucial for creators, marketers, and anyone involved in creative industries. While copyright law may not offer protection for short phrases, trademark law and international considerations can provide avenues for safeguarding and leveraging these valuable assets.



Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of

Join the Discussion

One comment so far.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    July 8, 2023 02:54 pm

    Ok, I will bite:

    Just because something is not actionable or protectable in the United States does not mean it enjoys the same status in other countries.

    Are short phrases (on any type of per se basis), actionable or protectable anywhere else in the world? Where? How? Native language, translation, both? Tone, timber, pace?**

    ** this last one is in view to the dozens of possible meanings of even single words – for example – “Dude.”