By Shannon M. Nolley
What Is a Trademark?
A trademark can be any word, phrase, logo, or design that connects your business with its goods or services in the minds of consumers. This can include your business name, product name, or tagline.
Trademarks are some of your company’s most valuable assets as they symbolize your reputation and goodwill. They are how consumers recognize your products or services among those of your competitors. Protection of these symbols is vital as your business grows.
What Should I Trademark?
You can seek trademark protection of any word, logo, or combination of words and logos that you want to use to identify your business. Companies often base their marks on their business names but leave out the legal entity designations such as Inc. or LLC. For example, if your company is legally organized as Blue Star, Inc., you would likely seek protection for BLUE STAR without the Inc.
Logos should also be protected if you commonly use them to identify your products or services. Tag lines or slogans can also be protected if you use them consistently in the same manner. Anything that you use consistently that connects your business with the goods or services you offer could potentially be protectable as a trademark.
Of course, protecting every mark could be expensive. Once you’ve chosen your trademarks you can prioritize which ones are most important to the core of your business and should be protected now. Over time you can re-evaluate and seek the protection of additional marks as your business grows.
How to Choose Your Trademark
When choosing a business or product name, it’s important to choose a name that is “inherently distinctive.” That means the name or trademark is quickly and clearly connected to your business. The stronger the mark, the more easily you can prevent others from using it without your permission. Weaker marks don’t have the same legal protections and can be difficult and costly to safeguard.
Marks that are descriptive of their related goods or services will be given limited protection. Marks that are commonly used in the industry are likely to receive no protection as competitors will need to use those terms to describe their own goods or services. For example, if your mark is BLUE STAR COMPUTER SERVICES, you will not be able to claim ownership of COMPUTER SERVICES but could protect BLUE STAR if it is not already in use.
The strongest types of trademarks are those that have little or nothing to do with their related goods or services. This could include invented words such as EXXON® or PEPSI ®. With these “fanciful” marks, all of the consumer association between the brand and the products or services will be built upon business efforts and earned goodwill.
It should be noted that a trademark gives you the exclusive right to use a mark, but only in connection with the goods and services in a particular industry. It will not give blanket rights to use the mark with every product or service.
Before deciding on what your trademark will be, you must do some research to make sure the mark you want is not already in use by someone else in your industry. If it is already in use, the other owner will have priority and could protest your use of the mark. This can become expensive if you have to change your name and rebrand after investing considerable capital and effort into your trademark.
Thus, picking a unique trademark that is not already in use is the first step in developing the brand your business will be built around. Next, you should seek legal protection of your mark.
Protecting Your Trademark Rights
Building brand recognition is not an easy process. It takes time and effort to establish your business and acquire consumer recognition. Properly protecting your trademark throughout this process becomes vital in guarding against improper or unauthorized use by a competitor that could tarnish or infringe upon your brand.
Once you begin use of your trademarks, you automatically establish common law rights to the mark. This will provide some protection, but there are limitations including rights that may be restricted only to your geographic area. This may be sufficient for a small local business. However, for a business with an online basis and a national or international scope, registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will provide much stronger protection.
Advantages of Registering your Trademark
Registering your trademark with the USPTO has several advantages. Some of these include:
- Protection of your mark in all fifty states
- Your ownership of the mark becomes part of the public record on file with the federal government
- The USPTO will block other applications for similar marks for similar goods and services that could be confused with your mark
- If you find someone using your mark, you can file a lawsuit in federal court to enforce your rights
- Shutting down uses of your mark online including on sites like Amazon or eBay through their trademark abuse processes and brand registries
- Registration in other countries may be available
- You may use the ® registration symbol which puts others on notice that your mark is registered with the USPTO
If your business has an expanded geographic region and you are concerned with competitors using your mark, registration is very important.
How Do You Register Your Mark?
You can register your trademarks through the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
The Intellectual Property attorneys at Gesmer can help walk you through this registration process so you can protect some of the most important assets of your business.