A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic. Sharing content on a specific topic can be accomplished by adding the hashtag topic to the message. Others searching for that topic can search for that hashtag topic to find other messages on the same social media platform. Hashtags have become such a prominent part of our society that the word was added to the Oxford dictionary in 2010 and to the Scrabble dictionary in 2014.
Given its popularity, naturally there is a tendency to want to trademark a particular hashtag. The motivation to get trademark protection usually stems from someone’s desire to control a certain phrase. However, there are a few requirements that must be met in order for a hashtag to be protected as a trademark.
Like domain names, a hashtag at its core is no different from a street sign. It functions to direct people to relevant content in cyberspace. If its status as a cyberspace street sign does not change, then it cannot be protected as a trademark because consumers do not recognize it as an indicator of source nor rely on it to distinguish goods or services.
If you start to use the hashtag in a trademark sense, then you may start to develop trademark rights in the phrase following the #. In most cases, the Trademark Office will require that you disclaim the use of the # because it is functional. A disclaimer is merely an acknowledge to the world that you will not claim exclusive rights in the disclaimed matter apart from your mark as a whole. In other words, other people can use the #.
Whether you can protect the phrase following the # depends on whether it is registrable just like any other word for the applied for goods or services. That means surviving a likelihood of confusion inquiry.
As trademark searchers, we should not concern ourselves with generic, descriptive, or purely functional matter when we construct our search equations. We don’t concern ourselves with this matter because it can only muddy our search results with irrelevant results. Instead, we should focus on the phrase separate from the #.
For example, it does not make much sense to search for FIRST BANK in connection with “banking services.” BANK is generic of banking services and no one would be able to tell another bank that they can use the word bank in their trademark. Instead, the focus should be on FIRST. The same strategy applies when asked to search a hashtag.