What Does a Trademark Protect?
Your trademark is a valuable asset to your business. It represents your brand and distinguishes you from your competitors. The legal rights that come with having a trademark registration online are essential to your long-lasting success in the marketplace.
Choose a Strong Mark from the Start
Your trademark is often the first interaction a person has with your brand. If chosen well, it should also protect against infringement—both willing and unwilling. The process to choose a strong mark, therefore, should be carefully thought out from the start. Trademarks can be divided into four categories, based on their strength:
- Generic words depict a general product or service. An example of this would be “Headphones” for a brand of headphones. Generic words or phrases are unable to function as trademarks and will never obtain any form of registration from the USPTO.
- Descriptive trademarks “describe” a product or service. For example, “Tremendously Hot Peppers” for a brand of hot peppers would be a descriptive mark. These types of trademarks receive very little protection because they are not truly unique brands.
- Suggestive trademarks simply hint at the product or service being offered. Burger King is an example of a suggestive mark. While suggestive marks may offer more protection, you could run into more trademark disputes, as others may choose to use similar, slightly descriptive language, like Burger Queen or Burger Boy.
- Arbitrary trademarks are commonly used, but not in conjunction with the goods or services provided. An example of an arbitrary mark would be Domino’s. While arbitrary marks are much stronger than both generic and suggestive, they do have the downside of having to educate consumers about the goods and/or services actually offered under the trademark until the brand is more established.
- Fanciful trademarks offer the strongest protection. They are invented terms with no relation to the product or service provided. Verizon, Starbucks, and Nike are all fanciful trademarks.
Complete a Comprehensive Trademark Search
Once you’ve chosen your mark, you need to complete a comprehensive trademark search. This should determine if your mark is already in use by another business or individual. It can be disappointing to learn that your mark may infringe on another business, but it is best to learn this before you invest in signage, product labels, or anything else where the trademark is displayed. Moving forward without completing a comprehensive search could cost you significant time and money to rebrand your business in the future.
Register Your Trademark with the USPTO
After you’ve conducted a comprehensive trademark search, the next step in protecting your trademark is to register with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO. While simply using your mark may give you common law protections, those protections are very limited. You may have legal rights to the mark, but only locally. This means you are not protected if someone in another part of the country decides to use the same mark. You also lack protection, and may even find yourself in legal trouble, if you wish to expand to another area where the mark is already being used. To get full trademark protection, you must register with the USPTO.
Police Your Mark
In order to protect your registered trademark, you must police it. While the USPTO registers the trademark, they are not responsible for enforcing the exclusivity of its use. The first step is to begin using the ® symbol once your trademark application has been registered. This provides public notice to other businesses or individuals that the mark is federally registered and protected. Include the symbol wherever your trademark is seen, from signs to labels, even your website.
Maintain Your Trademark
Your trademark protections are only available if you are continuing to use it. Consistent use of the mark is essential, which means that you are using the same words, design, or logo as were originally registered. Using your mark inconsistently weakens its protections and could be a disadvantage in a trademark dispute. You will also need to document continued use of your mark in renewal filings.
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