Certainly, you’ve heard the term “trademark.” However, you may not be clear how trademarking could benefit your own small business. Do you need to consider trademarking? What can you trademark? How do you get started?
A company’s business name is among one of its most powerful branding assets. And as with other business assets, it’s wise to protect them. If a business owner fails to do so, they run another company’s risk using the name. That can potentially confuse customers and create legal issues.
You’ve heard the horror stories: Small businesses being sued for trademark infringement and having to rebrand their businesses. That means redoing marketing materials, changing domain names, and a myriad of other nightmarish tasks — all because the business owner failed to file for trademark protection. Don’t let this happen to you!
Think of your trademark like planting a tree in your garden. The trademark represents your brand, and you need to protect it and maintain it, so it grows and blooms.
A trademark is a word, phrase, name, or symbol that identifies a company, a product, or a service and distinguishes it from competitors.
You can trademark your company name, product names, logos, and taglines. You can’t trademark an invention or a piece of software.
Trademarking Your Brand: Steps to success
Some small business entrepreneurs are deterred from trademarking because they think the process is overly complex. In fact, trademarking is relatively straightforward. The first step to trademark is to search what you seek to trademark to make sure your company name isn’t already taken.
If your name, logo, tagline, etc., don’t show up there, you can begin the trademark application process.
Most likely, your brand involves more than just your company name, so you need to be clear on what exactly you want to be trademarked. The USPTO will want to know if your trademark consists of words only (called a “standard character drawing”) or if it includes stylization, designs, graphics, logos, or color (called a “special form drawing”).
During the application process, you’ll be asked to upload files depicting your trademark. If you’re trademarking a special character drawing, the more detailed and original you can make this drawing, the better chance you have of securing the trademark. If your business has already begun, you’ll also need to show evidence of the trademark appearing in your marketing materials, correspondence, and website.
You’ll also need to determine your business’s classification. You’ll be directed to search on a few words describing what your business does, how it does it, and where it does it. The system then tries to match your description with several options for classification. Here’s where you can really distinguish your trademark from similar trademarks already in the system — again, the more specific you can be, the better.
The second step is to apply for federal trademark protection. A fee will be assessed at this point in the application process.
The third step is approval. When your trademark application is approved, you are then granted exclusive legal rights to that trademark. Additionally, there will be public notice that you’ve claimed ownership of the trademark. Once approved, you’re granted the legal right to use the “Â®” symbol that designates a registered trademark.
Should Your Small Business Register for Trademark?
Some small business owners assume that trademarking is just for global brands. But protecting your hard work and your brand identity is just as important for small businesses as it is for huge corporations.
Brand logos are the most obvious and most commonly trademarked items for small businesses. But you can also trademark words, symbols, packaging, and even sounds. Trademark assessment is a case-by-case basis, so if you have a question about whether part of your brand identity is trademark-worthy, a small business intellectual property attorney can answer your questions.
Experts recommend making your logo and another business branding as unique as possible. This serves two purposes: 1) A unique logo or symbol affords instant brand recognition, and 2) a unique logo or symbol will afford your business greater intellectual property protection because it will be so distinctive, and therefore harder to copy.
Trademarking is an important step for protecting your brand identity. It will stop competitors from poaching your customers by imitating your brand. It can also offer you some protection if those copycats do something reputation-damaging.
How Trademark can protect & grow your business
Intellectual property laws exist, so competitors cannot steal creative ideas, names, or symbols from other businesses. Trademarking is just good business – it’s easy and ensures that other businesses aren’t piggybacking off your hard work and brand building.
If you don’t register your trademark, then someone else can. This immediately puts your business and any product or service development you are undertaking at risk. Securing a registered trademark protects your brand and provides you with the tools to prevent someone from using similar signs and riding off the back of your business. If you do not protect your trademark by registering it, you may find you legally prevented from expanding your business. With your brand registered, you are within your rights to take actions against parties who have attempted to register conflicting trademarks or are operating with conflicting brands and damaging your business.
As your product or service becomes successful, the trademark itself starts to develop an intrinsic value. Business investors will assess whether you have taken the appropriate legal trademark protection to secure your brand.
When the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office USPTO approve a business name as a registered trademark, the owner has exclusive rights at the state and federal level to use the name. A trademark prevents anyone else from selling similar goods and services within the United States under that business name.
Also, trademarks’ primary purpose is to prevent confusion in the marketplace, so the protection applies to only a particular category of goods and services. For example, if someone trademarked their shoe-making name, “Spar,” another entrepreneur would likely be allowed to start a restaurant that uses that same name.