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Registering a trademark might seem like a daunting task, especially if you’ve never done it before. Fortunately, this in-depth guide covers everything you need to know about trademarks, including tips for how to get one.
Why Trademarks Are So Important
Getting a trademark might be the most important decision you make as a business owner.
Once you’ve registered a trademark with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), you’ll benefit from a wide range of legal protections that will safeguard your business in the future.
Trademarks are extremely useful for any business that wants a distinguishable brand. A trademarked logo makes it easy for customers to know exactly what a product or service is and who it’s coming from. If a trademark works properly, then a business can defend its products or services against impersonators infringing on the trademark.
With a trademark, businesses can comfortably create, promote, and invest in a brand, knowing that the offerings are protected. In many cases, this adds value to a company and allows them to charge premium prices for whatever the company is selling.
Trademarks give you peace of mind that another company can’t use your logo and branding to sell an inferior product, damage your reputation, and undercut your prices.
For example, look at companies like Nike and Apple. Both have established recognizable brands worldwide and protect their brands with trademarks.
Nobody else can sell sneakers or shirts with the Nike swoosh, and nobody can sell electronics with the iconic Apple logo.
In this sense, trademarks are powerful on multiple levels. They offer significant branding power as you’re building a business that’s easily recognized by consumers. But they also provide legal protections from competitors and impersonators.
Here’s an excellent example that shows how a trademark can protect your business.
Louis Vuitton is one of the most recognizable names in the high-end fashion world. Back in 2016, the company filed a lawsuit against a Korean fast-food restaurant named “Louis Vuiton Dak.” Not only did the restaurant have a similar name, but it also used packaging that was extremely similar to the iconic LV logo and design pattern.
Courts ruled in favor of Louis Vuitton and fined the restaurant $1,250 for trademark infringement—but the story doesn’t end there. After the court ruling, the restaurant changed its name to “LOUISVUI TONDAK.” This time around, they were fined $14.5 million for another trademark violation and non-compliance.
Trademark protection laws ensured that the fashion company wouldn’t have its brand tarnished by a fast-food restaurant trying to infringe on the trademark.
Quick Tips For Registering Trademarks Today
If you’re new to registering a trademark or you’ve had problems registering one in the past, these quick tips below will make your life much easier. You can do these things right away, with minimal time and effort.
Tip #1 — Make Sure the Trademark is Available
This is a common mistake that business owners and entrepreneurs make all of the time. While you might be creative, there are lots of people in the world. So there’s a chance that something you want to trademark has already been taken.
Also, your trademark cannot be “confusingly similar” to another trademark for a similar product or service. If you open a red and yellow fast-food restaurant with a yellow “M” as the logo and call it “MacDarnold’s,” you’d be infringing on McDonald’s trademark, even if it wasn’t your intention to do so. (The McDowell’s restaurant in the 1988 film Coming To America would absolutely have been sued for trademark infringement by McDonald’s in real life.)
Ignorance is not a defense against infringement either, so it’s your responsibility to run thorough due diligence research. But with over 9.2+ million trademark grants worldwide, performing due diligence on your own is near impossible.
The solution? Run a trademark search using an online legal service like LegalZoom.
This is the fastest and easiest way to see if your desired trademark is available. The tool has been used for over 50,000+ trademark searches to help identify any potential conflicts.
There are three different searches that you can run, depending on how in-depth you want to be:
- Federal Search — $199
- Federal, State, and Common Law Search — $299
- WorldScan International Search — $499
The Federal search looks at trademarks, coordinated classes, and ranked results. The next tier takes this one step further with corporate names, state trademarks, common law trademarks, and internet domain names. As the name implies, WorldScan covers everything, including trademarks registered internationally.
For something as important as a trademark registration go with the WorldScan. The $499 fee is marginal compared to the potential cost of a lawsuit for trademark infringement.
Tip #2 — Pick a Trademark You Can Defend
This is another common mistake that people make when selecting a trademark. Not everything is actually defendable if you trademark it.
It would stink if you go through all of the trouble to trademark something and then lose a court ruling if you sue someone who you thought was in violation.
According to the International Trademark Organization (INTA), there are five different types of trademark strengths. Let’s take a closer look at those based on the weakest to strongest hierarchy:
- Generic (weakest) — Generic words are considered anything that the public understands to be the common definition of a product or service. For example, the word “cup” is a generic word for drinkware. These types of words or phrases can’t be registered and won’t be protected if they’re synonymous with the product matching the definition.
- Descriptive (weaker) — Descriptive words describe the characteristics, qualities, features, or purposes of a product or service. An example would be “Cold and Delicious” for ice cream. These are a bit stronger than generic words but still may not be defendable.
- Suggestive (weak)— Suggestive marks hint or imply what the product or service might be without actually describing it. Netflix is a great real-life example of this, as the “flix” part of the name implies something to do with movies. These can generally be trademarked but don’t always have the strongest level of defense.
- Arbitrary (strong) — Arbitrary marks are words or phrases that have a common meaning, but they aren’t related to the product or service where the trademark is used. For example, the company Apple has nothing to do with the dictionary definition of an apple, and Dove soap has nothing to do with a bird.
- Fanciful or Coined (strongest) — This is the most defensible type of trademark because it’s inherently distinctive. It’s often a random combination of letters with no definition—essentially a made-up word–or a word used so rarely in everyday speech or the context of your industry that it would never be confused with its real context. Google and Rolex are both real-world examples of a fanciful or coined trademark.
In a perfect world, you want to register a trademark that falls into the fanciful or coined category. Then there’s no confusion about how your trademark will be defended. An arbitrary trademark is still strong, but you probably shouldn’t go with any of the lower strength levels.
Tip #3 — Use a Trademark Registration Service
Like many aspects of running a business, registering a trademark involves paperwork and filing instructions that aren’t always transparent or straightforward. In short, there’s a lot of information, and it can be really confusing.
But trademark registration services simplify this process. LegalZoom is one of the best options to consider in this category.
If you followed the first tip we discussed, you’ve already used this website to run a trademark search. Now it’s time to take things to the next level with the actual registration.
This online legal service has been used for over 320,000+ trademark applications, making it one of the most popular and reputable options on the market today. You can use LegalZoom to trademark a name, logo, or slogan.
There are two paths to consider here. LegalZoom offers a self-registration process where they walk you through a series of questions. Then they complete the appropriate paperwork and e-file the application on your behalf, which will cost you $249 plus federal filing fees.
The other option involves attorney assistance, which is something that we highly recommend. This service costs $599 plus federal filing fees but gives you a 94% chance of successfully registering your trademark.
With the attorney assistance service, you’ll benefit from the LegalZoom guarantee. If the first trademark gets rejected, they’ll cover the $599 fee and register a different one for you.
You’ll also benefit from the peace of mind knowing that an attorney will conduct research for you, complete the application filing, and handle any minor roadblocks along the way.
Using LegalZoom is easy, and you can typically get a decision on the application within three to six months.
Long-Term Strategies For Trademarks
In addition to the quick tips mentioned above, there are some long-term strategies you need to consider when you’re registering a trademark as well.
Strategy #1 — Think of Your Brand’s Future
When you’re registering a trademark, it’s easy to get caught up in the here and now. Obviously, you’re registering a trademark for a good reason—and that reason has to do with your immediate intentions.
But don’t pick a trademark that will box you in for long-term growth. Some names will really limit your opportunities down the road, based on what it means and public perception.
One of the best real-world examples of this is Amazon. When the company first launched, all they did was sell books online. Had Jeff Bezos originally trademarked a name like “Online Book Store” or something along those lines, the company would be boxed into a particular niche.
Today, you can get essentially anything you want on Amazon because the name is arbitrary.
What does the future hold for your business?
If you’re running a web development agency, you probably won’t be selling hot dogs or hamburgers through that business in five years. But you might expand to SEO services, marketing consulting, or content production.
A boutique dog groomer may ultimately expand into selling pet foods and pet accessories online sometime down the road. So “Big John’s Dog Grooming” isn’t the best name for growth—it leaves the business trapped in a niche.
Keep this in mind before you officially register your trademark. It will make your life much easier as you have opportunities for expansion and growth in the future.
Strategy #2 — Be Consistent With Your Use of the Trademark
Trademarks are generally valid for ten years, but it’s fairly easy to get them renewed prior to the expiration. The exact timeline and process vary depending on the country or territory in which the trademark was issued.
But that ten-year period doesn’t always guarantee the protection of your trademark if you’re not using it consistently. The rights are only valid if the trademark is active.
For example, let’s say you start a design business today and trademark the name Gorilla Design. A few years pass, and you decide to change the business to Giraffe Design—you’d essentially forfeit the previous trademark and start from scratch with Giraffe Design.
The same concept applies to logos. You can make subtle changes over time, but significant changes to its overall impression could lose your rights associated with that trademark.
Let’s stick with the same fictional business as an example, Gorilla Design. We’ll say the logo has a black gorilla wearing a shirt with your company’s name.
If you change the font on the shirt or make the gorilla smile instead of having no expression, you’re probably fine. But if the logo changes to three pink gorillas, you’d likely lose the protection rights of your logo.
Ready to register your trademark? Once that process is complete, there are a few other things you should do right away.
You should register a domain name for your trademark. Just because you own the trademark doesn’t automatically entitle you to the domain. So you’ll want to lock this up before someone else has the chance.
Check out our list of the best domain registrars for options on where to proceed. If you’ve never done this before and have additional questions, our guide on how to buy a domain.
A domain name is just one aspect of your online presence. To complete your branding strategy, you’ll also need to create a website. Our guide on the best website builders will steer you in the right direction.
Get your brand out there and start securing all of the social media handles associated with your trademark as well. This will really help with your long-term branding strategy.