Updated October 9,2020:

A trademark protects a slogan, phrase, word, company name, logo, or design that identifies a company and/or its goods. A logo is a symbol or design used by a company that may fall under trademark protection laws. Many businesses choose to apply for trademark protection on their logos. When approved, a trademark restricts others from using an exact or similar mark.

In order to qualify for legal protection, a trademark must be unique. Prior to filing an application, the designer or business owner should conduct a thorough search of the existing trademark registration database. If you don't find anything similar, yours should receive approval. But it's best to know before you waste time and money filing an application that gets rejected.

It's certainly worth protecting a creative and original design, but it's generally more important to trademark the words in a specific mark or design. There are several registration categories for trademarks, and some are more flexible than others. Trademarking your words offers stronger protection, and more trademark infringements are based on protected words, not designs.

One of the most commonly trademarked symbols is a company logo. Businesses use their logo on marketing and advertising pieces, products for sale, vehicles, apparel, uniforms, and much more. Without trademark protection, your logo is at risk. Anyone in a similar business can use something very similar without any restrictions.

The purpose of trademarking a logo is to avoid confusion among consumers. When trademarking laws went into effect, lawmakers wanted to make sure that a consumer could clearly identify what product or service came from what business. Without proper legal protection, any company could replace another's logos without legal risk, leading to confusion for consumers about which products to buy.

Many of the biggest companies in the U.S. have instantly recognizable logos. You could show the Nike "swoosh" to just about anyone in the country and they would likely know immediately what brand it represents. This is an example of the need to reinforce the protection of trademarked business logos.

Why is Trademark vs. Logo Important?

Many businesses wonder whether trademarking a logo is necessary. It's very important if your competitors have a similar logo or design associated with their brand. Without a registered trademark, your company doesn't have the legal ability to protect your design. Furthermore, if the other business files an application on their design first, it's likely that they will receive the trademark protection.

It's difficult to prove which company was using a logo first. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) generally uses the filing date and information within the application to decide who owns the logo. If you haven't filed an application, you could lose out on the opportunity to use your own design.

The process of receiving approval on a trademark application takes about 6-16 months. But in the meantime, your business can use the logo on its materials and products. Before using the logo, though, check the existing trademarks through the Trademark Electronic Search System. Avoid using a logo that is similar to one that already holds a trademark.

You have two options for using a logo before you receive a trademark approval. First, you can add the TM or SM symbols to your logo. These symbols don't hold legal weight but they do serve a purpose, which is to tell your competitors of your claim on the design. The symbols also show your intent to file for trademark protection.

TM stands for trademark and SM stands for service mark. You add TM to a logo for a company that offers goods and products and SM to the logo for a company that offers services.

Since the symbols aren't legally required, your second option is to leave them off your logo. But this does come with some risk. Without the symbols, your competitors won't know you plan to file a trademark application.

Understanding the Scope of Protection

When you file for a trademark, you typically submit the design or logo in the exact format that you plan to use it. If it is only words, called a standard character mark, you'll likely send it in all capital letters. But when it's approved, this trademark covers all variations and forms. For example, if your business name has a lower case letter in it, using the design with an uppercase version of that letter falls under the trademark protection. It also applies to any color, size, or font used in the design.

However, a trademark on a design or logo only protects exactly what you submitted. If you change the logo at all, you have to do a new application for that design.

Business owners may want to file several applications for logo trademarks, including:

  • The logo design in color
  • The logo design in black and white
  • The standard character mark for the word or phrase (text only)

Filing multiple applications protects your logo in all forms so you can use it freely.

It's also important to note that trademark protection restricts another person or company from using a similar mark that causes confusion among consumers. However, there is no protection on the actual goods or services, so anyone can offer something similar under a different mark. Only a patent protects a specific product.

Common Law Trademark Rights

Companies do have some protection under common law trademark rights. These rights are given through regular business use of a logo or other symbol. But if the mark in question violates a trademark held by another person or business, the trademark rights hold up over common law trademark rights.

There are a few reasons that a business might opt not to trademark its logo. If your company logo is a standard character mark, the wording must be specific. Generic or broad words aren't eligible for trademark protection. One example of this might be a business called "The Barber Shop." Without anything unique or distinctive, this company's standard character mark would not qualify for a trademark.

But if "The Barber Shop" submitted an application with a unique logo that included the words, that logo might be eligible for trademark protection. It must be different enough from any other similar logos that it doesn't infringe on an existing trademark. The trademark, in this case, wouldn't protect the name of the business. Instead, it would restrict other barber shops from using a similar or identical logo.

A business might not file a trademark application for its logo because of the cost, as filing an application is between $225 and $600. Small companies or start-ups may hold off on filing until they have funds available. Using the SM or TM symbols might offer some breathing room until a company has enough money to file for a trademark.

If you plan to change your logo in the near future, you might as well hold off on submitting a trademark application.

Some companies focus more on protecting the business name than the logo. You can register your company name in the state in which you do business. During that registration process, the Secretary of State's office searches other registered business names to avoid duplication.

If you choose not to trademark your company's logo, you're missing out on legal protection against someone else using your design. In the event that another business uses something similar, you won't have many rights to protect your intellectual property. Trademarking your logo gives your company the exclusive right to use, produce, copy, and profit from it.

Not trademarking a logo also puts your company at risk for someone else applying for a trademark on something similar. If that application is approved, your logo is now infringing on their legal protection.

From a legal standpoint, the first company that uses a mark is the legal owner. But if you don't file for protection, it's difficult to prove that you used the mark first. A court will recognize the person or company who first filed the trademark application as the legitimate owner.

Common Mistakes

One common mistake is creating a logo that looks very similar to another. If a company has trademark protection on its trademark, and you create one that is too much like it, you are at risk of being sued. Businesses often create logos and start using them without searching what already exists. Even if you think your logo design is unique and different, there are thousands of companies that have trademarked logos that you may not know about.

Another mistake is waiting too long to file a trademark application. There is no firm deadline, but another company may file for a similar logo design while you're putting it off. The filing date is the most important part of your application when disputing who actually owns a mark or logo.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I trademark my company logo?

In order to receive a trademark on your company logo, you need to submit an application to the United States Patent and Trademark  Office. Include an image of the design exactly how you plan to use it. You may also want to file multiple applications for black and white and color versions.

Applying for a trademark on your company logo is not required. But doing so does extend legal protection that restricts others from  using your exact logo or even something similar.

  • What protection comes with a registered trademark?

When you hold a trademark on your logo, it gives your company exclusive rights to it. No one else can legally produce, use, copy, or profit from it.

Steps to File

  1. Review existing registered trademarks that could be similar to your logo design.
  2. Complete and send the application to the USPTO. Make sure to include the design of the logo with your application.
  3. You can check the status of your application on the Trademark Status and Document Retrieval System. Your application will appear on the site within 14 days of filing.

A logo represents a company, but trademarking that logo helps to protect it from theft. When another business uses a similar logo, it creates confusion and consumers may not know which product to buy. With proper legal protection, your company can prevent others from using your logo or one that looks similar.

If you need help with trademark vs. logo, you can post your question or concern on UpCounsel's marketplace. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience. They work or have worked with or for companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.