Searching for trademarks is an important step to take if you're interested in registering a trademark of your own. It's one of the first things you should do to make sure the trademark you wish to use isn't already registered by another party. By conducting a proper and thorough search, you can avoid the legal hassle of infringing on someone's trademark, which can have expensive consequences.

How to Perform a Trademark Search: Step by Step

  1. Start at the United States Patent and Trademark Office database, known as the Trademark Electronic Search System, or TESS. 
  2. Select “Word and/or Design Mark Search.” This offers the greatest amount of flexibility.
  3. Start with the obvious and enter your proposed trademark in the search box. Once you submit your query, see if an exact match comes up. You might get many results.
  4. Cover all bases and try all obvious variations. You want to avoid the “likelihood of confusion” when choosing a trademark. If you want to use a multi-part name, consider all possibilities. For example, check “RAIN-CHECK,” “RAINCHECK,” and “RAIN CHECK.”
  5. If you don't get a hit right away, expand your search field. For example, try each part of your multi-part name separately and in combinations. Check for variations and obvious misspellings. Many trademarks include “clever” spellings or plays on words. There may be alternate spellings for foreign words or names may have variations, such as Braun/Browne/Brown. Vowel or consonant substitutions may be used. Check for number/word substitutions, like the digit “2” for “too," etc. This isn't a comprehensive list, but it gives you the general idea of how and why you should check for as many variations that you can think of.
  6. Narrow your search to make the list more manageable if the number of unusable results is very high. However, be careful not to narrow too much; you don't want to miss anything important.
  7. Review the results. You'll see six columns with the following designations: 
  • Record number: On each page, the number of results goes up to 50. If you have more than 50 results, click “next” to see subsequent pages.
  • Serial number
  • Registration number, for any registered trademarks — pending applications (including those opposed or abandoned prior to registration) will show a blank.
  • Word mark, or the word part of the trademark. For a mark that's pure design or image, scent, color, etc., this column will be blank.
  • TARR: Check the status list instead of the actual record.
  • Live/Dead: You'll see “Live” for current or pending registrations and “Dead” for any registrations that are canceled, expired, or abandoned.

You can search some of the fields using a numerical value. Codes for these fields include the following:

  • [RD] Registration Date
  • [FD] Filing Date
  • [PF] Physical Filing Date (although there's no definition for this term, it's assumed to be used for paper applications)
  • [PD] Priority Date (for foreign applications)
  • [CD] Cancellation Date
  • [AD] Abandonment Date
  • [SR] Date Amended to Current Register (for switches from Principal to Supplemental Register)
  • [UD] Update/Load Date (date of last changes made)

Reasons to Conduct a Trademark Search

Too often, people use a name without finding out if they're legally able to do so. They may create huge advertising campaigns for it, only to discover later that they can't legally use the name because it's trademarked. It's smart to conduct a Comprehensive Search Study first, before deciding to register a trademark or doing business with a trademark. This can help you avoid the risk of litigation in the future on the basis of trademark infringement.

You can review registrations and applications for trademarks at no charge in every state. Simply check your Patent and Trademark Depository Library.

While you can perform a trademark search yourself at no cost, you might want to enlist the services of a trademark attorney. Someone with experience and knowledge in this area of the law is more qualified than the average layperson to determine trademark availability. They may also be able to search for unregistered trademarks, which is important. An attorney's legal opinion can go a long way toward ensuring you don't step on any toes regarding a trademark. It's an extra cost but one that will likely prove to be worth it in the long run.

If you need help with a trademark search, 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.