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Trademarks and How to Use Them

The legal side of branding

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B randing goes beyond just catchy slogans, cool names, and sleek logos. Branding is crucial for your company’s identity; it establishes ownership and protects the very essence of your business—its reputation. How can you protect your brand from being copied by competitors? A trademark is a legal protection that gives you exclusive rights to use your brand name, logo, or slogan in connection with your products or services. The following examines the many types and formats of trademarks, why they are crucial for safeguarding your brand identity, and how to trademark a brand name.

Trademark vs. Brand: Understanding the Distinction

While your brand and trademark work together to build a strong business identity, they serve distinct purposes. Your brand is the comprehensive experience you cultivate for your customers. It encompasses everything from your captivating logo and catchy tagline to the visual elements on your packaging and the quality of your products and services. It’s the essence of what makes your business unique. A trademark protects specific elements of your brand, such as your brand name, logo, or slogan. Registering a trademark provides legal protection. It prevents others from using confusingly similar visual elements, safeguards your brand reputation, and helps to prevent customer confusion in the marketplace.

You can protect your brand using both trademarks and copyrights. While trademarks shield your brand identity, copyrights protect your original creative works, including written content like articles or blog posts, artistic creations like paintings or photographs, and even the code that makes your website function. Copyrights ensure that only you have the right to reproduce, distribute, or display those specific creative elements. However, it’s important to note that generic words or slogans wouldn’t qualify for copyright protection. A registered trademark helps ensure that your copyrighted work is protected.

The benefits of trademarking your brand are far-reaching and can significantly impact your brand’s success in many ways.

The Importance of Trademarks for Ensuring Brand Protection

The benefits of trademarking your brand are far-reaching and can significantly impact your brand’s success in many ways:

  • Brand enforcement. A registered trademark empowers you to take legal action against businesses or individuals infringing on your brand identity, protecting your brand’s reputation and the trust you’ve built with customers. This also discourages copycats and fosters a fair playing field in the marketplace, allowing you to compete based on the merits of your brand.
  • Brand value enhancement. A robust trademark portfolio demonstrates a commitment to brand protection and professionalism. This can be particularly attractive to potential investors or collaborators, thereby adding value to your company.
  • Building a strong competitive advantage. Imagine your brand name becoming synonymous with quality and trust in your industry, allowing you to leverage this recognition and establish a powerful competitive edge. Customers who recognize and value your brand are more likely to choose you over competitors.
  • Global expansion. Trademarking is vital to secure your identity in foreign markets. Early registration ensures protection in your target markets, preventing local competitors from copying your brand identity and potentially derailing your international expansion plans.

Consider trademark registration as a cornerstone of your brand-building strategy, as it lays the foundation for a thriving enterprise with sustainable growth.

Different Types of Trademarks and Their Protection

Trademarks come in various types, each offering a distinct shield of protection for your brand. Understanding these types empowers you to choose the one that best suits your brand identity and the level of legal muscle you desire. Let’s delve into the distinct variations within the trademark world.

Fanciful and Arbitrary Marks

Fanciful marks are entirely invented words, like Kodak or Xerox. These enjoy the strongest protection because they have no inherent meaning related to your product. Arbitrary marks have a dictionary meaning, but one totally unrelated to the product, requiring some proof that customers now recognize them solely with your brand. Think Apple for computers, Dove for soap, or Kleenex for facial tissues. 

Suggestive Marks

Suggestive marks playfully hint at the nature of your offerings and require a stronger showing of acquired distinctiveness than arbitrary marks. Customers need to have a clear association with your brand, not just the word’s literal meaning. Imagine Tide for laundry detergent or Sleepy’s for mattresses.

Descriptive Marks

Descriptive marks directly describe the qualities or characteristics of your product or service. These marks receive the weakest protection unless they’ve acquired distinctiveness through extensive use. Think of how the words aspirin or escalator have become synonymous with the entire product category and can’t be trademarked.

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Trademark Formats

Trademarking covers more than just words and includes brand names, slogans, and taglines like Nike’s “Just Do It.” Other formats that may be trademarked include the following.

  • Logos—these are visual powerhouses that are instantly recognizable—i.e., Apple’s bitten apple logo or the Starbucks mermaid.
  • Symbols—non-verbal representations like the peace sign or the recycling symbol can be impactful brand identifiers.
  • Sounds—catchy sounds like the MGM lion’s roar or the Intel jingle can be trademarked, further solidifying brand identity.
  • Product packaging—distinctive packaging designs can be trademarked, preventing competitors from mimicking your unique product presentation.

Knowing these types of trademarks allows you to select the best defense for your brand to help guarantee both legal protection and growth.

How to Trademark a Brand Name

The trademark registration process, while simple enough, requires careful navigation. These three steps can help secure your brand name.

  1. Conduct a trademark search. Check the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database to ensure your chosen mark isn’t already in use.
  2. File a trademark application. The USPTO offers online and paper applications. Gather the necessary information, including your brand name, a clear depiction of your mark, and the specific goods or services you’ll be using it for.
  3. USPTO examination and registration. The USPTO will examine your application for potential conflicts and registrability. If approved, you’ll receive a trademark registration that grants you federal protection.

Remember, this is a simplified overview of the process. Consider seeking guidance from a trademark attorney to help your registration process go smoothly and efficiently.

How Much Does It Cost to Register a Trademark?

The cost of trademark registration depends on the filing type and if you use a lawyer. USPTO trademark filing fees average $250 to $350 per trademark class—category of goods or services. Hiring a trademark attorney can streamline the procedure and increase your chances of success, but costs depend on their experience and the complexity of the case.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Trademark?

The trademark registration process can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Although trademarks are a complex part of branding, understanding them will help you protect your brand’s reputation, give you an advantage over the competition, and set your business up for success.

Disclaimer: Bizee and its affiliates do not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal, or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal, and accounting advisors before engaging in any transaction.

Key Takeaways

  • Trademarks and copyrights are essential to protecting your brand and paving the way for the success of your business.
  • The distinction between trademarks and copyrights: Trademarks shield your brand identity, copyrights protect your original creative works.
  • The different types of trademarks and the protections they provide.
  • The time, cost, and process of filing for trademark protection.
Shaneequa Parker

Shaneequa Parker, JD, MPA, MSW, CDP/CDE, has more than 15 years of experience working in the social service and nonprofit fields, as well as professional cosmetology experience. She serves as the Vice President of Compliance and Legal Affairs for a New York City-based nonprofit organization. Managing the organization's compliance and professional development activities feeds her passion for helping others grow professionally and creating nurturing networks and connections. Read more


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