Trademarks are like shields for your business’s ideas, logos, and reputation. When you start a business, one of the first things you should do is claim your trademarks by using them in your work and showing everyone that these names and symbols belong to you. You can make this even stronger by officially registering your trademarks. However, before you do that, there are some important things to think about. In this article, we’ll talk about the basics of trademarks to help you create a strong trademark and understand how to register it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
What Is a Trademark?
A trademark is like a special sign that shows that something belongs to your business. It can be a word, phrase, symbol, or a mix of these that helps people recognize your stuff, like your products or services. Almost anything that represents your business and makes it different from others can be a trademark. For example, your business name, the way you package your products, the name of your podcast, or your company logo can all be trademarks.
Why Are Trademarks Important for Small Businesses?
Trademarks are like a superpower for businesses in many ways. When customers see your trademark, they know it’s your business, whether it’s on your website, your product packaging, or your social media pages. Trademarks help you stand out from the competition, and they’re also great for marketing. They can even make you money if you let others use your trademarks in special agreements. If you plan to expand your business by letting other people open branches, trademarks are crucial. Lastly, having a trademark can save you a lot of money in the long run. Many businesses don’t realize there might be problems with their business name, logo, or website until another company tells them to stop using those things. Having a registered trademark usually prevents this from happening.
How to Choose a Strong Trademark
The first step to protect your business is to pick a strong trademark. When you choose a trademark, it’s important to think about how it could affect your business legally. Strong trademarks are unique, easy to remember, and often completely made-up words, like Google or Kodak. The more unique your trademark is, the easier it is to protect it from being used by others without permission. This is called trademark infringement. But if your trademark is strong, you usually have legal protection.
When you choose a trademark, it’s also important to follow the rules set by the USPTO. They have five categories for trademarks: (1) Generic, (2) Descriptive, (3) Suggestive, (4) Arbitrary, and (5) Fanciful. Generic and descriptive marks might not get trademark protection, while arbitrary and fanciful marks usually do. Let’s look at these categories:
- Generic Marks: These are very common words for a type of product, like “athletic trainer” for someone who helps with sports. You can’t trademark something this generic because it would stop others from using these common words.
- Descriptive Marks: These words describe what your product or service is like, such as “smooth and creamy smoothies.” These are hard to register, but some businesses can if they can show that people see the word as connected to their business, like American Airlines or Bank of America.
- Suggestive Marks: These marks give an idea of what the product or service is, but they don’t say it directly. For example, “KitchenAid” suggests kitchen tools without saying it outright.
- Arbitrary Marks: These are real words used in a completely different way. For instance, “Apple” is a common word, but it’s used as a brand name for technology products.
- Fanciful Marks: These are the strongest. They are made-up words or phrases that have no meaning, like “Pepsi” or “Kodak.”
Check for Similar Trademarks
Before you decide on a business name or logo, it’s a good idea to check if someone else is already using something similar. If you choose a name or logo that’s too much like another registered trademark, you might have to stop using it. The USPTO won’t give you back the money you paid to register it. Checking for similar trademarks is important because you don’t want to start a legal battle with another company.
You can do this by searching online and using the USPTO’s search system. You should also look at state trademark databases because not all trademarks are registered with the USPTO.
Registered vs. Unregistered Trademark
A registered trademark is like a superhero with a registered trademark symbol (®). This means it’s on the official list of trademarks that the government keeps. An unregistered trademark is like a superhero in training with a trademark symbol (™). It means you’re using the trademark, but it’s not officially registered yet. You can use the ™ symbol whenever you use your trademark.
To get a registered trademark, you need to fill out an application and send it to the USPTO.
Applying for a Trademark
Once you’ve picked a strong trademark, you can start the process to get it registered. There are two main types of trademark applications: (1) TEAS Plus and (2) TEAS Standard. TEAS Plus applications are usually faster, but TEAS Standard applications have fewer requirements to get started.
When you apply for a trademark, you’ll need to provide some important information:
- Description of Goods or Services: You have to describe what your product or service is in a way that doesn’t overlap with other trademarks.
- Filing Basis: This is why you’re allowed to register your trademark. It’s usually either “Use in Commerce” (if you’re already using it) or “Intent to Use” (if you plan to use it soon).
- Classifications: Your product or service belongs to a category (class). There are 45 classes, and you need to pick the one that fits your business. Classes 1-34 are for goods, and 35-45 are for services.
- Specimen: A specimen is like a sample that shows how you use your trademark. For goods, it might be a photo of your product with the trademark on it. For services, it could be an advertisement or a website screenshot.
Understanding the Trademark Examination Process
You should know that getting your trademark registered can take some time, usually between 12 to 18 months.
After you send in your application and fees, your application gets a number and goes to a trademark attorney. The attorney checks if your trademark meets the rules to be registered. If they think it doesn’t, the USPTO will tell you why. If everything is okay, there’s a 30-day period where the public can see your trademark and object if they think it’s too similar to theirs. If no one objects, the USPTO will give you a registration certificate, which usually happens around 11 weeks after the 30-day period.
Protecting and Keeping Your Trademark
Once your trademark is registered, you have to use it and send certain documents to the USPTO regularly to show that you’re still using it. Don’t forget to renew your trademark on time! You must do this between the 5th and 6th year after it’s first registered, then again between the 9th and 10th year, and every 10 years after that. If you don’t renew it, the USPTO will cancel your trademark.
It’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for others who might use a similar trademark. If you see that happening, act quickly to protect your brand and reputation.
To sum it up, trademarks are like shields for your business’s ideas and logos. Registering them is a key step in building and protecting your brand’s reputation. But before you start the process, make sure to understand the rules. By following these basics and working with experts like the Dike Law Group, you can successfully protect your brand.