Updated July 6, 2020:

Knowing how to trademark an idea can protect your inventions from being copied or sold. A trademark is a phrase, word, symbol, or design that differentiates one company's goods from the goods of other companies. Trademarks contribute to the identity of a company and need to be carefully protected.

Ownership rights can be established without registering a trademark, but federal trademark registration gives a company the legal presumption of ownership and allows it to protect the trademark in court.

Step 1: Search Existing Trademarks

Trademarks give your company legal rights to be the only group to use a certain mark, which helps customers correlate that mark with your business. The first step in trademarking an idea is to search the USPTO database of existing patents. If your idea is similar to something that has already been trademarked, you won't be able to register for a trademark.

Step 2: Draw the Trademark

In order to file for a trademark, the USPTO requires that individuals or companies submit a physical drawing of the mark. This is because trademarks are unique symbols, words, or designs. The model allows a USPTO representative to make sure the mark isn't too similar to existing trademarks.

Once it has been approved, the trademark drawing will go into the USPTO database so other people looking to file a trademark won't be able to create anything similar.

Step 3: Decide the Basis for Filing

When registering for a trademark, you must say if your basis for filing the application is considered “intent to use” or “use in commerce." "Use in commerce" applies to a person or company that is already using the trademark for an established business. "Intent to use" applies to a company that intends to use the trademark after filing the application but hasn't started using it yet.

Step 4: File the Application Online

Trademark applications can be filed with the USPTO using the online Trademark Electronic Application System, which replaces the need for hard-copy forms. In order to access the forms, you must submit personal information, trademark details, and the filing fee. 

Supporting documents like the owner's name and contact information and a rendering of the trademark should also be included. The fee to apply is typically $275. Additional fees apply for multiple class registrations.

Step 5: Track Application Status

The status of a trademark application can be monitored with the Trademark Applications and Registrations Retrieval (TARR) system. It typically takes around a year to approve an application, though it can take up to multiple years. To stay on top of the application, check the TARR system at least once a quarter to see if there are any updates. You can still use the trademark while your application is under consideration because an official registration isn't required.

Step 6: Keep Ownership of Your Patent

In order to keep your trademark active, you need to file every six years to maintain ownership. The USPTO will not remind trademark holders when they are up for renewal, so you need to keep track of the timing.

Trademark Application Requirements

In order to file a trademark application, you need to complete two forms:

  • Trademark Application Form
  • Idea Documentation

Details matter in an application for a trademark, so be sure to fill out the forms completely and include pictures and explanations. If can be helpful to find an attorney to assist with the application process.

Protecting Your Idea Without Patent

Many inventors are nervous that their ideas will get stolen. This is a reasonable fear. However, it takes the help of other people to bring your idea to fruition. That means that at some point you are going to have to open your idea up to other people to evaluate the idea and assist in bringing it to market.

You will also need to collaborate with someone to manufacture and distribute your product or service. Patents can protect your idea, but they are expensive and costly. It can take years and thousands of dollars to get a patent, and waiting that long to form your idea isn't likely an option. However, there are some creative ideas that can keep your idea protected that don't require a patent.

If you need help with how to trademark an idea, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.