What Is a Collective Mark?

A collective mark is a trademark used by the members of a collective to indicate membership in the group or to identify and distinguish the products and services of members from those of the non-members. The mark may be a word, symbol, or group of words. Collective entities can register and get protection for collective marks under the Lanham Act.

Collectives may be associations, cooperatives, organizations and unions, or public institutions. Only members of the organization that registered a collective mark can use it. Even if it's the members of the collective that use the mark, the collective holds the mark rights.

Producers of traditional regional products often use collective marks to promote the products and help market them internationally. These initiatives help local producers cooperate and are important tools for local growth.

Examples of collective marks include:

  • McDonald's®, a trademark of McDonald's Corporation
  • 100% Recycled Paperboard®, registered by Recycled Paperboard Alliance, Inc.

Collective Trademarks and Service Marks vs. Collective Membership Marks

There are two types of collective marks: collective trademarks and service marks, and collective membership marks. This is because collective marks can be used in two ways: to indicate membership or as a trademark.

  • Collective Trademarks and Service Marks

Collective trademarks and service marks show the source of the products and services sold by the members of the collective and distinguish the products from the competitors'. It's not the collective itself that sells products or services but its members. Only the collective's members can advertise the goods under the marks.

A good example is Girl Scouts cookies. "Girl Scouts" is a collective trade mark and only a member of the Girl Scouts collective can sell the product.

  • Collective Membership Marks

Collective membership marks are used with the sole purpose of indicating membership of a collective group. Usually, organizations register their group name to protect its use from non-members. The collective doesn't use the mark in commerce to identify the source of their product or service.

In order to be registrable, the mark needs to be generally used by the members of the collective. Members can use the mark on membership cards, wall plaques, or rings to show their membership. Occasional use or use by specific members of the group doesn't make the mark a collective membership mark.

The mark AAA® inside an oval, for example, indicates membership in the American Automobile Association. FTD is a collective membership mark that signals that a specific flower shop is part of a flower delivery system. In order to use the FTD mark, the shops need to pay a membership fee and meet certain requirements.

Making Sense of the Different Categories of Marks

Marks can be grouped into a few different categories:

  • Trademark

A trademark is a word or other device that distinguishes the source or origin of a product. A trademark makes it easy to tell the difference between a product from another company's product. A trademark is protected under the Lanham Act, no matter if it's registered or not.

  • Service Mark

A service mark is the same thing as a trademark, but it's related to a service instead of a product. Service marks also include titles, character names, and other features of programs.

  • Certification Mark

A certification mark is a word or symbol used by someone other than the mark owner that certifies either:

  • the geographic origin of the product (for example, "Certified Maine Lobster")
  • some product's traits such as quality, accuracy, material, or manufacture mode. For example, the UL symbol on labels that certifies that the product is to "conform to the safety standards established by Underwriters' Laboratories, Inc.."
  • that the organization or person that manufactured the product meets certain standards set by a particular organization.

A business can use a certification mark only when it meets certain standards set by the mark's owner. The mark's owner has the responsibility to make sure the users of the mark continue to meet standards, and that the consumers understand what the mark is about.

  • Collective Mark

It's important to identify the difference between collective and certification marks because they are similar. Like certification marks, collective marks identify the source of the product/service and the registrants of the mark aren't usually the users of the mark. However, while particular members of the organization can use a collective mark, anyone who meets the standards defined by a certification mark's owner can use the certification mark.

Like trade/service marks, collective marks are protected as long as the owner of the mark keeps paying the renewal fees.

  • Trade Dress

A trade dress is a design or packaging of a product that makes the source or origin of the product immediately recognizable. Customers can distinguish a product from a competitor's product thanks to such design. A trade dress usually includes features such as shape, color, graphics, and size. A business can register a trade dress, as long as it is:

  • Distinctive enough. Customers should be able to identify the source/origin of a product. It doesn't matter if the trade dress is inherently distinctive or it has acquired a secondary meaning, as long as it's distinctive.
  • Nonfunctional. A trade dress is functional when the product feature is essential to the existence of the product or when it affects the cost or quality of a product. For example, if registering a product feature restricts the competition, the trade dress is considered functional. To determine if a trade dress is functional or not, the courts examine if:
    • A utility patent for the design exists
    • The business praises the advantages of the trade dress when advertising the product
    • There are alternative designs
    • The design is cheaper to reproduce than other competitors' designs

If the courts establish that a trade dress is functional, it won't be possible to register. A design is de facto functional when it is functional but not essential for the product's function (such as a Coca-Cola bottle design). A company can register such trade dress. On the contrary, a design is de jure functional when it brings the company a competitive advantage -- this can't be registered.

  • Trade Name

A trade name is a word or symbol that identifies and distinguishes a company or business from another. A trade name differs from the legal name of the company and may include terms such as "LLC," "Corp," or "Inc." A business can't register a trade name as a trademark unless it's distinctive enough to be recognizable by consumers.

  • House Mark

A house mark is a word used together with a line of products to make customers understand the source of a product at first glance. For example, Toyota Corp. uses the Toyota trade name in all car names, such as "Toyota Corolla" and "Toyota Prius." Usually, house marks coincide with the company's trade name, but not necessarily. A house mark can be a separate trademark or service mark.

  • Family of Marks

A family of marks is a group of trademarks or service marks with some unique and common elements, such as initials or a suffix. This allows customers to understand the source of the products right away. McDonald's, for example, uses the prefix "Mc" to make its product recognizable, such as "McFlurry," "McMuffin," and "McSundae."

How To Register a Collective Mark

Registering a collective mark is very similar to registering a trademark or service mark. The company needs to submit an application to the USPTO (Patent and Trademark Office). In the application, the applicant needs to show who is allowed to use the mark and how he/she intends to control that the users continue to meet the requirements.

The applicant also needs to accompany the application with a copy of the regulations that control the use of collective marks. A collective can use the same mark as a trademark and a collective mark. No one can use the same mark as a collective mark and a certification mark at the same time. The USPTO will examine the application to understand if the collective mark has the requisites to be registrable, and will approve or deny the application.

Collective marks are useful for organizations and associations. There are certainly advantages for registering collective marks, but it's not always easy to navigate the laws. If you have questions about collective marks, you can post your legal need in the UpCounsel's marketplace. You will get an answer by lawyers that come from law schools such as Yale Law and Harvard Law. They're always experienced lawyers who have previously worked for important companies such as Google and Stripe.