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By J.D. Houvener
Patent Attorney and Founder

Can I patent what is said on a t-shirt, something that has never been said before? I think you’re mixing up some areas of the law. On a t-shirt, a lot of people get this confused—the artwork or even the lettering on a t-shirt, right? That’s artwork in and of itself. The way that it looks, the style, the font, the colors, the position on the shirt—that’s art and that’s protectable under copyright law. Let’s lay that out first.

Now, sometimes people that are starting clothing brands will put their actual brand name on the front of the shirt. But what actually governs, what controls under trademark law is what’s on the label, what’s on the manufacturer—who owns that company behind the apparel. So, that’s what trademark law’s all about, making sure your customers know where their goods and services come from. It’s not necessarily under trademark law, but what is on the shirt itself. It’s about the company, the brand behind those goods.

Trademarking is even different; patenting is about protecting design, so three-dimensional, right? Three-dimensional, think of a water bottle, the way that it looks under a design patent. Also, utility patents tell you how it functions—it’s got a cool handle, holds weights, and holds water right with a watertight seal. It has a button that pushes and has functionality where it’s spring-loaded. Those are all utility aspects under a utility patent. There’s actually a third type of patenting called plant patents as well, where you actually grow organic plants, and you can protect the genetic composition of those plants.

So, wording is not a design of three-dimensional design or a functional utility. So, design—sorry, we’re trying to protect what’s said on a shirt is not going to be governed by patent law. If what’s being said, you want to structure a company around those words—let’s just say it says, you know, “What in the world?” If those are the words that you’re trying to protect, if you’re going to start a company and a brand around “What in the world” and start an apparel company, that’s trademark protection, right? That’s something we could do a search on and try to have an application submitted for to protect “What in the world.” And you could potentially put that on the shirt. But remember, there’s a second layer—that the way that it’s positioned or what font it’s in or what color—that’s technically more art. But what’s actually printed on the shirt is art. The fact you have a brand or label called “What in the world” is what’s covered by trademark. That’s a long-winded way to answer your question, but I hope I got a lot covered.

About the Author
J.D. Houvener is a Registered USPTO Patent Attorney who has a strong interest in helping entrepreneurs and businesses thrive. J.D. leverages his technical background in engineering and experience in the aerospace industry to provide businesses with a unique perspective on their patent needs. He works with clients who are serious about investing in their intellectual assets and provides counsel on how to capitalize their patents in the market. If you have any questions regarding this article or patents in general, consider contacting J.D. at