Protecting trademarks means officially registering trademarked material (or, in the U.S., just using that material commercially) and taking the initiative to keep others from using your protected property. This second step is key, as not actively protecting your intellectual property could make defending your rights difficult. Learn more about how to protect your intellectual property and why trademark rights are important.

Facts About Protecting Trademarks

There are two important parts to protecting your trademark. First, you have to choose the content that you want to protect, whether it's a business name, slogan, logo, or jingle.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office requires that this content be unique and not vague, but you also want content that distinguishes your products or services from others. Your trademarked material will be synonymous with your commercial identity and reputation — whenever people see your trademark, they'll think of experiences they've had with your brand.

Second, it's up to you to check whether someone is infringing on your protected material. You have to report the activity, contact the infringer, and pursue legal action, if needed, to protect your trademark.

Choosing a Strong Mark

Follow these tips to choose a unique, strong, and distinguishable mark:

  • Avoid generic brand names and phrases, such as “Ice Cream Shop.” The Trademark Office will reject names like this.
  • To secure strong protections for your mark, try a creative name that indirectly suggests what product or service you provide. Some companies use portmanteaus, such as “Amtrak” — “America” plus “Track” — to create a unique name that's still clearly relevant to their industry.
  • You can also use what the Trademark Office deems a “fanciful” or “arbitrary” mark to protect your intellectual property. Names such as “Apple” and “Verizon” are fanciful because you can't tell what services each company provides based on the name alone.

Regardless of whether your name is creative or fanciful, the most important thing is to check that no one else is already using the mark. To do this, you can search through registered trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Note that common law rules in the U.S. also apply to trademarks. You don't have to officially register a mark to enjoy exclusive rights to use it commercially.

Registering Your Trademark

Though the U.S. has common law trademark rights — established through the first use of a mark — many countries only award trademark protections if the mark is officially registered. Official registration is often necessary on the international level, but it also provides important benefits to individuals and businesses in the United States and other countries that follow common law rules.

You may also consider proactively registering your mark in foreign countries even if you don't plan on doing business there. This will ensure that you have the right to act against any infringement in those locations.

Actively Using a Trademark

Though registering a trademark is key to protecting your intellectual property, you must also use the mark in order to have exclusive rights to it. Using your mark means promoting it, displaying it, and/or advertising it. You don't necessarily have to sell products or services under the mark.

You'll also need to keep the trademark registration active and enforceable. This means renewing the mark as needed and ensuring that any changes you make to the mark are applied in all countries where you've registered.

Reserving a Trademark for the Future

Though you must use a mark to have exclusive rights to it, you don't have to start using the mark immediately. Indeed, some people reserve a trademark when they're in the planning or development stage of creating a product. At this early stage, registering a product name, for example, will ensure you have exclusive rights to it when you're ready to go to market.

You can file for an “intent to use” trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This gives you a maximum of three years from the filing date to use the mark. Note that the date of your official rights to the mark is when you file the intent to use application, not when you use the mark commercially. Refer to this date if you ever have to defend your mark against an infringing company or individual.

If you need help with protecting your trademark, 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, Stripe, and Twilio.