Your company’s trademark identifies your company’s consumer goods and services. To obtain full legal protection for your company’s trademark, you should register that trademark – with help and advice from a national trademark attorney.

If you’re starting a new business, or if you already own and operate your own business, your graphic designs and your other creative ideas (also known as intellectual property) may be among your company’s most valuable assets. Those designs and ideas need the maximum available legal protection.

A trademark is a word, design, symbol, or phrase that distinguishes your company’s products and services from other companies’ products and services. If you become involved in a trademark infringement case, or if you need to have a trademark legally registered, a national trademark lawyer can help.

Which “designs” should have registered trademarks? What are the advantages of having a registered trademark? How are trademarks registered? If you will continue reading this short introduction to designs, trademarks, and the law, you’ll find the answers to these questions.

What Do Trademarks Do?

Trademarks, copyrights, and patent registrations are issued by the federal government. They legally protect different kinds of intellectual property. Trademark registrations protect the names, phrases, and graphic designs that identify a business.

In other words, a trademark is a name, phrase, or graphic design that lets consumers know, for example, that Pepsi isn’t Coca-Cola and that Cheerios are not Rice Krispies.

Which “Designs” Need Registered Trademarks?

Creating a name, symbol, logo, or graphic design that consumers instantly identify with your business – a trademark – is an essential marketing step for any successful and growing business. Everyone, for example, instantly recognizes the “golden arches” as the symbol of McDonald’s.

When “designs” are inventions or models for potential inventions, those designs need patents rather than trademarks. However, logo designs, identifying brand marks, and similar graphic designs are considered trademarks and should be registered.

The law does not require you to register your company’s trademarks, but trademark registration establishes your exclusive legal right to use your trademark on the consumer items that your company produces as well as in your company’s advertising and marketing materials.

How Do You Establish and Register Your Trademark?

If you are a business owner, you establish “common law” rights to a trademark by using the trademark regularly. However, for complete legal protection – and to maximize the value of your brand – you should have your trademark registered.

A trademark for a single state business, multi-state business, or an international business based in the U.S. should be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

A national trademark attorney who registers trademarks on behalf of his or her business clients can answer your questions and help you throughout the trademark registration process, which invariably involves a number of complex legal questions and procedures.

Why is Trademark Registration Important?

A “common law” trademark is protected by law only if you use it before another business in your same geographic area uses it. Common law trademarks cost you nothing, but they offer you only minimal legal protection. Registration of your trademark with the USPTO:

  1. gives your company the trademark’s sole legal ownership
  2. gives your trademark considerable legal protection in every state
  3. protects your trademark in nations that have signed international trademark agreements

Trademark rights are established and maintained by the actual, routine use of the trademark, so trademarks are “forever” as long as the business continues regularly and routinely using the trademark.

A registered trademark remains registered and does not expire provided that the trademark owner files the required paperwork, pays the necessary registration fees, and continues to use the trademark routinely and regularly.

Can Anyone Else Use Your Registered Trademark?

When your trademark is registered with the USPTO, it may not be used legally by any other party in the U.S., with this single exception: A business that was already using the mark when you applied to register it may continue using it in geographic regions where they have used it.

If any other company uses your trademark after you have registered your trademark with the USPTO, you have the right to file a trademark infringement lawsuit against that company in federal court, and you have the right to be represented by a trademark infringement attorney.

How is Trademark Infringement Handled?

In a number of ways, your trademark is like your name. You don’t want another person using your name (or your company’s trademark) or misrepresenting you (or your company) to others. Trademark infringement happens when someone uses your trademark without your consent.

To infringe on a trademark owner’s rights, an unauthorized trademark doesn’t have to be an exact, identical copy. If an unauthorized trademark is close enough to your own to confuse the average consumer, the use of that unauthorized trademark probably constitutes infringement.

No one factor determines the outcome of trademark infringement cases. But if your sales are impacted, or if you and your attorney can prove that your brand is “diluted” or “tarnished” by another party’s use of a similar trademark, your trademark infringement claim is likely to prevail.

What if You Have Not Registered Your Trademark?

Without federal registration, your trademark may have some legal protection under your state’s unfair competition laws, but only in your own state. You will not be afforded the protections of federal trademark laws.

Registering a trademark costs some time and money, but registering a trademark reduces the likelihood of infringement-related legal difficulties and saves you substantial money and time in the long run.

What Else Should You Know About Trademarks?

A trademark should be a name, phrase, or design that is memorable and uniquely distinctive. A trademark’s real value kicks in when consumers recognize your product immediately and distinguish it from others because of the trademark.

You cannot register something that’s generic or vague as your trademark, and you cannot register as a trademark a symbol or a design that is indistinguishable from other registered trademarks.

When Should You Contact a Trademark Attorney?

Whether you are starting up a new business or you’ve been in business for years, if you are not already being advised by a national trademark lawyer, you should consult a trademark lawyer about registering your company’s trademarks.

That lawyer can also offer you sound legal advice about copyrights, trademark infringement claims, and the protection of your intellectual properties. Make the call to a trademark lawyer now. It’s never too early to protect your company’s intellectual property.