Happy April! Spring has sprung and this month, we’re discussing the ins and outs of trademarking your business name or logo.
Q: What is a trademark?
A: A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design (or a combination of any of these) that identifies the source of a product or service and distinguishes it from competitors.
Q: What can be trademarked?
A: Trademark registration can be granted on distinctive names, logos and slogans. You might want to seek a trademark for a product name, company name, company logo, or tagline.
For example, “Nike”, the Nike swoosh design, and “Just Do It” are all trademarks owned by Nike to distinguish their products from other athletic companies. But keep in mind that trademark protection only applies to a particular category of goods and services. Nike Inc. may own the mark on a variety of shoes, clothing, sporting goods, etc. But there’s also a Nike Corporation in Sweden that’s involved in heavy machinery, like hydraulic lifting jacks.
Q: What’s the difference between a registered and unregistered trademark?
A: Trademarks don’t actually have to be registered with the USPTO (US Patent and Trademark Office). If your company creates a logo or name that you want to use exclusively, you can attach the TM symbol and this essentially gives you “common law” rights.
However, trademarks that are registered with the USPTO enjoy stronger brand protection (see “What are the benefits of registering a trademark?” below)
Also keep in mind that in order to claim first use to a name, the name has to be “trademarkable” (i.e. not already in use by someone else) and needs to be in use in commerce. For example, if you think of a cool company name, you will need to actively market and sell a product or service using that company name for your common law trademark to be valid.
Q: How do I know if a name is available for me to use for my company, product, or service?
A: Before you incorporate or register your business with your state, you’ll need to check the state’s database of company names and make sure the name you want isn’t already in use. Name conflicts are one of the main reasons many LLC, corporation, or DBA applications get rejected. At this point, you should also conduct a free trademark search to check if your business name is available to use at the federal level.
It’s also important to know that you can still infringe on someone else’s mark even if they’ve never formally registered it with the USPTO. For this reason, you should also run a comprehensive nationwide trademark search into state and local databases (beyond just your own state). This should include common law and county registrars.
Q: When should I or can I use the trademark symbol? And what’s the difference between TM and ®?
A: Before you have registered a trademark with the USPTO, you may use the TM symbol. After a trademark is registered with the USPTO, you have the right to use ® in your trademark. Many companies choose to use the TM or ® symbol with the first appearance of the company or product name in a document, and then drop the symbol for each appearance after that.
Q: What are the benefits of registering a trademark?
A: By registering for U.S. Federal Trademark protection, you’ll be eligible for several benefits, including:
• Treble damages in some cases of infringement
• The right to use ® in your trademark
• A streamlined process for securing your domains and usernames at social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube
• Significantly stronger protection than ‘common law’ (aka. unregistered) marks. This can make it much easier to recover your property, let’s say if someone happens to use your company name as their Twitter handle.
Q: If I’ve already registered my name with the state, do I still need a trademark?
A: When you incorporate, form an LLC, or file a DBA (Doing Business As) for your new business, this process registers your business name with your state’s secretary of state. Before approving your application, the state checks that your name is distinguishable from all other business names registered in the state. Once approved, the business name is yours, and yours alone, to use within the state. This protects anyone else from using your name within your state, but it doesn’t offer any kind of protection in the other 49 states.
If you’ve started a business that’s physically tied to your state (i.e. a hair salon or restaurant) and have no plans on expanding into other states, registering your name with the state or county might be enough brand protection for you. However, if you’re planning on conducting business outside your own state (i.e. you sell a product or you provide services and some of your clients may live elsewhere), you should look into trademark protection with the USPTO.
Q: How long is a trademark good for? How long does a trademark last?
A: Trademarks today have a 10-year term. Once that term is up, you can renew a registration for another 10 years, and there’s no limit to how many times you renew the trademark. As long as you keep filing your renewals, along with your Declaration of Use forms, you can have a trademark as long as you’d like.
Q: What happens if someone else uses my trademark?
A: If another company is in a different type of business than you, you may not have legal grounds to stop them from using your mark. As the owner of a trademark, you can stop someone else from using your mark when it’s being used on competing goods or services, and when consumers would be confused by their use of the trademark.
If you believe someone is infringing on your mark, an attorney will first send a cease and desist letter on your behalf, demanding the other user to stop using your mark. If that’s unsuccessful, you can file a lawsuit (most likely in federal court) to stop the use. In many cases, you can also sue for money damages from the user. In fact, legal recourse is the biggest advantage of registering your trademark.
Do you need help registering a trademark or have a questions regarding the process? Call the CorpNet.com team today for a free business consultation at: 888.449.2638
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