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Protecting your business from copycats and impersonators can be a challenge, especially if you’re trying to build a reputable brand. One way to defend your brand is by filing a trademark application for your business. This guide will teach you how.
Why Trademarking a Business is Worth It
To be clear, not every business needs a trademark. When you register a business name with the state, nobody else in your state can use that name. All logos used for products, packaging, labels, and other business purposes are protected by “common law” trademarks in the US—meaning you have the right to that mark within a geographical area, so long as your business was the first to use it. These laws vary slightly at the state and federal levels.
It’s also worth noting that anyone can use the ™ symbol without actually obtaining a trademark. Sometimes putting the ™ symbol next to your brand name and logo is enough to deter others from using it. But unlike a federal trademark, it’s tough to actually protect your business using common law trademarks outside of your geographical area.
With that said, there are several advantages to getting a trademark, making the process worth it for many businesses. Registering a trademark for your business gives you counterfeit protection and universal protection across the United States. It can ultimately make it easier for you to receive global protection for your brand. Official trademarks registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) can use the ® symbol with the logo, adding even more protection to the business.
Under the Anticybersquatting Protection Act, trademarks give business owners the right to sue people using a domain name identical to their trademark or a confusingly similar domain. You can even ask US Customs and Border Protection to confiscate counterfeit goods at the border that violate your trademark.
Trademarking a business is worth it if you want to scale and prevent others from using your name and logo. But if you’re just running a small local company with no plans to scale outside of your area, common law trademark protection will likely be enough for your business—so you can skip this process for now.
The Investment Needed to Trademark a Business
Trademark registration fees from the USPTO start at $250 per class of goods and services. This fee just covers the initial filing. Additional fees after the mark has been registered range from $200 to $525. You’ll also need to apply for renewal every ten years, which starts at $525.
This investment just covers the application. It doesn’t include legal fees or the cost associated with trademark filing services. So if you want some help with the process, expect to incur an added costs. Assuming there are no filing delays, the trademark process typically takes 6-12 months.
It’s also worth noting that you’ll need to pay for each class of goods or services that you want to be protected by the trademark. For example, if you want your mark protected on a t-shirt but also protected on computer software, you’d need to pay a filing fee for two classes before the application can be approved.
To speed up this process and ensure accuracy on your application, it’s in your best interest to use a trademark registration service. Online platforms like LegalZoom make it easy for anyone to trademark a business.
LegalZoom has a DIY service starting at $249 and an attorney-assisted service starting at $599. The attorney service gives you a 94% chance of registering a trademark. A lawyer will research the mark, file everything for you, and handle roadblocks along the way. If your trademark is rejected, LegalZoom will cover the $599 fee and register another mark for free on your behalf.
5 Steps to Trademark a Business
While trademarking a business might seem like a daunting process, it’s really not that difficult when you break it down into stages. You can complete the entire trademark process in the following five simple steps.
Step 1 – Choose a Mark Type and Decide What Trademark Protection Level is Right For You
Before you start filling out applications or submitting paperwork, take a moment to get organized. First and foremost, verify that a trademark is right for your business.
As previously mentioned, not everyone needs to go through this process. So this step can save you some time and money if you ultimately decide that your business doesn’t actually need a trademark.
Trademarking a business is a pretty broad term. You can’t trademark the company itself. But you can trademark things like:
- A business name (like Adidas)
- A logo (like the three stripes in the Adidas logo)
- A slogan (like “impossible is nothing”)
Note that if you’re trying to protect a specific invention or product associated with your business, then you’d need to apply for a patent instead. Let’s say you wanted to create a TV commercial about this new invention. Then you might want to register a copyright for that commercial. Trademarks don’t extend to these scenarios.
Assuming you still want to proceed, you’ll need to choose the mark you want to protect. This is a crucial step because not every mark will be legally protected, and not every mark can be registered with the USPTO.
- You can’t trademark something generic like the word “clothes” or “furniture.”
- You can’t trademark something that’s already been trademarked within the same class of products (for example, Dove chocolates and Dove soap have trademark protections with the same name because the businesses are in two different classes).
- Even if something hasn’t been officially registered with the federal government, you might not be able to register a trademark if another business is already using that name, logo, or slogan.
Selecting a Mark
Trademark types typically fall into one of the following categories:
- Generic Mark — Generic marks don’t qualify for trademarks unless they include a specific detail describing the quality, characteristics, or ingredients of the goods the business sells. A name like “Pizza Restaurant” is too generic to trademark.
- Descriptive Mark — Descriptive marks identify one or more characteristics of the product, giving it unique protection by trademark laws. To qualify for this mark type, it should go beyond what the brand represents and cover who it represents.
- Suggestive Mark — Suggestive marks imply something about a product or service. For example, the luxury car brand “Jaguar” implies speed and agility but doesn’t necessarily relate to automobile manufacturing.
- Fanciful Mark — Fanciful marks don’t have any real meaning in common language. It’s essentially a made-up word or phrase for business use. Nike and Kodak are both examples of fanciful marks.
- Arbitrary Mark — Arbitrary marks include words or phrases with a well-known meaning, but the use is different from the dictionary definition. Apple (the computer company) is the best example of an arbitrary mark. If the company sold fruit, they wouldn’t be able to use this generic term in a trademark.
According to the USPTO, only strong trademarks will be accepted. Suggestive, arbitrary, and fanciful marks all fall into this category. Generic and descriptive marks are usually rejected.
Trademark Protection Levels
Next, you’ll need to determine a trademark protection level for your business. This generally falls into one of three categories—local, state, and federal.
Local trademarks are protected by common law. You don’t have to file any paperwork, and you can freely use the ™ symbol with your name and logo. These marks don’t give you much protection in court if someone outside your area uses your trademark.
State trademarks can be obtained quickly, usually with the secretary of state’s office. It gives you the exclusive right to use a trademark in your state but won’t provide you with protection beyond the state level.
Registering a federal trademark with the USPTO gives you the highest level of protection nationwide. Once approved, you can use the ® symbol, which essentially gives your brand bulletproof protection in the United States. It’s easier to get international trademark protection if you already have a federally approved trademark.
Step 2 – Run a Trademark Search
Now it’s time to begin the actual trademark registration process. But you’re still not ready to fill out an application just yet.
First, you need to make sure that no other business has registered the trademark. This can be complicated, considering how many businesses there are across the country. It’s even more complex when you consider common law trademarks—companies using names, logos, and slogans that haven’t been registered.
You could always run a trademark search using the USPTO database, the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS). But using an online trademark search service is much easier.
LegalZoom has run over 50,000+ trademark searches in efforts to identify potential conflicts before the application gets filed. Starting at just $199, it’s a great value.
Application fees are non-refundable, so it’s essential to verify the validity of your desired trademark before you get started. Furthermore, the USPTO could take months to even review your trademark application. So not only will you lose money, but you could also be wasting valuable time if there’s a conflict with your application.
This simple search typically takes just 15 minutes. Using the service can also prevent you from violating someone else’s trademark, exposing your business to potential lawsuits.
Step 3 – Prepare and File Your Trademark Application
You can apply for a trademark online directly through the USPTO website.
With that said, any mistake on the application could be costly. Mistakes here could cost you more money, additional time and potentially impact your legal rights as a business owner.
Rather than leaving something as important as a trademark in your own hands, you’ll be much better off using an online legal service to handle things for you.
LegalZoom’s trademark service is straightforward. Not only will they run a trademark search for you, but they’ll also handle your application and file everything directly with the USPTO.
Using LegalZoom for your business trademark application is a no-brainer.
The entry-level service starts at $249 plus filing fees. It comes with a basic search service, application completion, and e-filing. But we strongly suggest using the attorney-assisted trademark service from LegalZoom.
For $599 plus federal filing fees, an attorney will handle everything for you. This is the fastest, easiest, and most reliable way to get a trademark for your business.
Step 4 – Monitor the Application
Filing the application is just one step. From here, an examiner from the USPTO will be assigned to your application before the actual review process begins.
It’s common for this examiner to reach out with additional questions or paperwork requests for your application. So be prepared for some type of follow-up. You can also monitor the progress of your application from the USPTO’s website.
If the examiner requests information and you don’t respond by the deadline, you’ll need to start the trademark application process over from scratch.
This is another reason why LegalZoom and similar services are so valuable, especially if you opt for the attorney-assisted service. If a minor speed bump or roadblock comes up along the way, the attorney service will handle it on your behalf.
Step 5 – Maintain Your Trademark
Once the examiner has approved your trademark, the mark will be included in a weekly publication from the USPTO. Anyone who believes your trademark infringes on theirs will have 30 days from the publication date to file an objection.
Assuming you pass this process, then the trademark will be officially yours. You’ll get a certificate of registration from the USPTO.
If you filed an “intent to use” mark, meaning you haven’t actually used the trademark for business purposes just yet, you’d have six months to use the mark after the approval.
Then you’ll need to file a statement of use with the USPTO or request an extension.
Beyond these steps, you’ll also need to file certain maintenance documents with the USPTO. Trademarks don’t last forever, and you’ll need to renew them every five or ten years.
It’s worth noting that the USPTO doesn’t monitor or enforce trademark rights. It is up to you to protect your trademark from copycats or impersonators.
Check out our guide on the best reputation management software. These tools are great for monitoring things like brand mentions online, which could ultimately alert you if someone else is using your business name or logo.
We also have an in-depth guide on building a brand, which is helpful for businesses that want to scale after obtaining a trademark.