Trademarks are legally branded representatives of your company name or your logo.
They can be as recognizable as the McDonald’s golden arches or Target’s red and white bullseye, which is important because they are designed to be a symbol that essentially helps identify your company’s reputation.
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a good trademark is one that identifies the source of your goods and services, as well as distinguishes your business’s offerings from other competitors.
So why does your business need a trademark and how do you go about getting one? Is it expensive and when is the right time to formalize your brand or logo with a trademark?
Here are three strategies for getting the process and timing of a trademark right.
Related Article: The In-N-Out Effect: Trademark Mistakes You Need to Avoid
1. Common Law Versus Registered
You’ve probably seen the Trademark™ and Registered® symbols but do you know the difference? According to an article in Bloomberg Business, the trademark symbol is used in conjunction with common law trademarks, or those that haven’t been formally registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Bloomberg explains that, “common law trademark rights arise on first use within a product category or geographic market.” Essentially by using the Trademark (™) symbol after your logo or company name you’re establishing common law precedence of ownership of that brand. If this is true, why bother going through the trademark registration process? Mainly because of the limited protection common law trademarks offers your brand. There are geographic limitations to a common law trademark versus a formally registered one and with the registered (®) trademark you’ll have greater legal protection if you ever need it to defend infringements.
2. Timing to Register
There are two schools of thought on when to register a trademark for your business. One argues start now so that you establish your trademark’s precedence while the other argues wait until your business is proven. According to those who argue to start now, small businesses need to establish and protect their brand. CNN Money advocates it is critical for small businesses to know how to, “register a trademark, protect it and avoid infringing on established ones.” That’s an important consideration because not only will you want to defend your own trademark, but you also want to ensure you aren’t unknowingly violating someone else’s -- which could cost you huge sums of legal fees and fines.
The other school of thought that believes it doesn’t make sense for you to pay for a trademark argues that until your business is established, you don’t know your brand well enough to have a meaningful trademark. An alternative middle ground between these two diverging arguments is to complete what’s called an intent-to-use application. As legal website NoLo explains, an intent-to-use application uses your filing application date as the date of your trademark and begins the process of getting your mark registered with the Trademark office, but allows you to delay submitting and using the actual trademark brand or logo itself for up to six months after it’s issued. That gives your business time to grow and you time to form and finalize a trademark name or logo at the same time you’re starting the (often lengthy) trademark application process.
3. Go It Alone or Get Help
You can file an online application on your own for a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark office. The Wall Street Journal writes that you can complete an online application in about an hour and a half and for around $325 or less. However, if you make a mistake in your application or don’t know how to defend your registration from being contested, getting professional help is probably the smarter way to go. CNN Money tells small businesses that getting help can be well worth the cost: “Trademark lawsuits can be time-consuming and costly -- amounting in hundred of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” or worse.
If your business name is slightly generic, broad, or potentially similar to another already filed trademark, you will want to get help from a trademark attorney to ensure you file properly. Alternatively, companies like AKeyMark or legal documents site LegalZoom can offer a hybrid approach with legal forms and coaching available, but without the full service, or full cost, of a trademark attorney office.