Knowing how to protect your trademark, as a business owner, keeps your unique brand identity from being diluted due to its use by competitors.

Ownership of Intellectual Property

Trademarks are considered intellectual property (IP), a category that also includes patents, copyrights, and trade secrets. The ability to prevent others from using your trademark will depend on the following factors:

  • Whether the use in question is likely to cause confusion in the market
  • If your ownership of the trademark has been established with active use in the market
  • The instance of the entity using your mark providing a similar product or service
  • Whether the use in question dilutes the power of your trademark
  • If the mark is being used in the same market and/or geographic area

Owning a trademark allows you to build customer recognition of your brand, which is a critical part of building a successful business. Clients can seek the trademark when they want to purchase your product or service.

Before using a symbol or name for your business, make sure another company isn't already using a similar trademark. If you skip this step, you may gain customer recognition only to find yourself defending against an infringement lawsuit.

A comprehensive trademark search will also keep your trademark application from being rejected by the USPTO. You can use the agency's online Trademark Electronic Search System to look for federally registered trademarks that are similar to yours.

Registering Your Trademark

Simply offering products with your trademark allows you to protect the mark by establishing active market use. Although you don't need to register your trademark, doing so provides an additional level of protection. You can do so easily through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

If you want to trademark a name for a product that will not be sold for several months, you can file an intent to use trademark registration. This reserves the trademark for use in the future, provided you do so within six months to three years. When you begin using the mark, trademark protection will be backdated to the filing of your intent to use application.

You can file your application through the online Trademark Electronic Application Service. You'll need to upload a picture of your mark and a document called a specimen, such as letterhead, that shows how it is used in commerce.

Your application should list the products and services covered under your mark, as your trademark will only be protected for the items indicated. The completed application will be reviewed by an examining attorney with the USPTO, who will respond with a letter called an office action, to address questions and concerns.

Once your mark is registered, make sure you take the necessary steps to maintain it over the years. Trademark registration is good for 10 years and can be renewed indefinitely for 10-year periods. However, documents to maintain the mark must be filed after the fifth year and ninth year after registration, as well as every 10 years thereafter. Failure to do so may invalidate your registration.

Methods of Trademark Protection

  • Keep dated photos that illustrate your first use of the trademark in question, such as a time-stamped email receipt for business cards that include the trademark.
  • Distinguish your mark by using a text treatment that allows it to stand out from surrounding text, such as a larger or bolder font.
  • If you have registered your mark with the USPTO, you can use the R symbol in a circle next to the trademark.
  • Unregistered trademarks can be marked for ownership by using either SM or TM. Simply using the trademark establishes ownership, but you can enhance your claim on the mark with these symbols.
  • Monitor the market for use of similar trademarks and enforce your ownership of the mark when necessary.
  • Send a cease and desist letter demanding that the infringing party immediately stop using the mark in question.
  • File a trademark infringement lawsuit to prevent a competitor from using an infringing mark if your cease and desist letter is ignored. You may also seek damages for economic harm resulting from the infringement, such as lost sales, if the infringement was intentional.

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