Updated July 14, 2020:

Service Mark Overview

A service mark can be a phrase, a logo, a graphic, a name, or other marks that identify your business as a provider of services distinct from other businesses.

Although closely related, service marks and trademarks differ in some crucial ways. A trademark is used by a business that sells products, such as clothing or jewelry. A service mark is used by a business that offers services, such as dining or plumbing. If your business offers services rather than goods, your branding would generally be a service mark.

Legal professionals often use "mark" to refer to both trademarks and service marks.

Service Mark Examples

Because trademarks and service marks are so similar, they may be confused. Essentially, when your business offers a product for sale, you would use a trademark. The Apple logo is a good example of a trademark, as it's used on all the company's products, such as the Macbook and iPhone.

A familiar example of service marks comes from United Airlines. The name "United Airlines," the "Fly the Friendly Skies" tagline, and the logo of a world map are service marks. This is because United provides a service: airline flights around the world.

Many companies will use both a trademark and a service mark because they provide both goods and services. Take Amazon, for instance. The name of the online retailer can be considered a service mark because it provides online shopping services. However, the name can also be a trademark because Amazon sells branded products like its Kindle e-reader.

Other examples of companies that use both trademarks and service marks include McDonald's and Starbucks. Both companies provide services for diners but also sell specific products. For McDonald's, the products are primarily menu items. Starbucks also sells branded coffee beans, ground coffee, cups for home and travel, and a variety of other tangible goods. The marks on these goods are trademarks.

Distinct sounds may sometimes also be registered for a service mark. The tri-tone of the NBC network is registered as a service mark because a television network is considered a service. Some other sounds registered as service marks include the MGM lion's roar and AOL's classic "You've Got Mail."

Why Is Registering Your Service Mark Important?

Service marks and trademarks are considered intellectual property. This generally refers to assets that do not have physical form. Examples are ideas, images, songs, and sounds.

Service mark registration protects both your business and the public. For your business, registration enables you to fight infringement. When your service mark is registered with United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), you can request an injunction against a business that infringes on your mark. You may be able to receive monetary compensation if you can prove losses.

With the public, a registered service mark shows a business is trustworthy and is verified to offer its advertised services.

Sometimes, you might need to register a trademark and a service mark. Let's say that FedEx starts using a new catchphrase to refer to their delivery service. The catchphrase is "Faster than a lightning bolt". Since this phrase refers to a service, it should be registered as a service mark.

Now let's imagine that FedEx decides to expand the use of the phrase. They print it on shipping boxes, packing materials, and even apparel. Because the phrase is now used on physical products, it must now also be registered as a trademark.

As you can see, there are certain situations where you will need both a service mark and a trademark. 

Modern Service Mark Complications

Service marks and trademarks once generally referred to traditional branding methods like logos and phrases. However, the internet, with its increasing role in providing goods and services, has added complications to registering marks.

Unfortunately, there are no concrete laws in place for businesses to register a trademark or service mark for a web address, although you can almost always get an additional registration for a website when you apply for a trademark or service mark. The lack of set rules for web domain service mark registration has resulted in legal complications.

Available web domains can be registered by anyone at any time. This means there is no protocol for a business to prevent an individual from registering a web address that reflects the company name or image.

If, for example, an individual had purchased the domain "nike.com" before the shoe manufacturer did, Nike may not have had any legal options to take over the website. Before commercial websites became common, there was a rush to purchase potentially valuable domain names. Buyers then offered them to large companies for profit.

Congress responded by passing the Federal Trademark Dilution Act of 1995. This act protects companies from uses that dilute their distinctiveness.

An experienced attorney can answer any questions you may have about registering a service mark for a web domain.

Mistakes that Cause Your Registration to Be Rejected

A common mistake is registering for a service mark when the business really needs a trademark. A service mark is generally only used for businesses that provide services and not goods. If your company offers goods or products in any form, you would use a trademark for those materials.

Let's say your business is a residential cleaning service. Because you offer a service — home cleaning — every type of branding that you use for your business would be registered as a service mark.

Now imagine your cleaning service becomes so popular that you want to start offering branded apparel. Since you now offer a product line, your products' branding is a trademark.

When registering your service mark, there are pitfalls to avoid. You must search your desired design on the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) to make sure it's available. You must also make sure your service mark is unique. The mark may not include obscene content, governmental symbols, or geographic markers that can't be used solely by a business.

Once your registration is approved, you may use the ® registration symbol. Meanwhile, you can claim your legal rights to your service mark by using the ℠ symbol.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Where can service marks appear?

Service marks are commonly found on vehicles, stationery, and marketing materials, in digital presentations, and more. These marks may come in other than visual forms. For example, RKO Pictures uses a Morse code signal for its movies.

  • How broadly does a service mark apply?

In addition to legally protecting items like your company's logo or name, your registered service mark may also protect visual characteristics. Visual elements that are protected by service mark registration are known as trade dress.

  • What is a trade dress?

Trade dress can refer to any design or décor that is unique to your business. For example, if your restaurant has an original décor, you may be able to register the style as a service mark. If another restaurant uses your décor, whether by mistake or deception, you may be able to sue.

  • What kinds of marks can be service marks?

There are three types of mark formats:

  1. Standard. These use basic words and numbers, such as the company name.
  2. Stylized/Design Format. These incorporate specific design elements. They may include photos, colors, and illustrations associated with a business. 
  3. Sound Marks. These are sounds associated with a company. Examples: the roar of the MGM lion, or the meow of the MTM kitten.

Consult an Attorney About Your Service Mark

Understanding when and how to use service marks can be difficult. If you don't have legal experience, it's wise to seek expert guidance.

If you need more information about service marks or need help registering a service mark for your business, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers. 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