Does Your Small Business Need a Trademark?

Trademarks and patents are an important part of your business's identity.

As a small business owner, you know how important it is to protect your business. But, are you protecting your company’s name? A trademark can save you a lot of money and headaches that come with other companies using your brand as their own. Consider trademarking your business before your reputation is on the line.

What is a trademark?

A trademark represents your business, products, or services. You can trademark a name, logo, symbol, and even sound that refers to your business.

A trademark shows others that your company exclusively owns the products or services you offer. Customers make decisions based on your business’s brand, so it’s important to stand apart from other businesses. Recognizable symbols help you create relationships with customers and encourage repeat buyers.

Registered vs. unregistered trademarks

You are not legally required to register your trademark. However, you should look into the differences between unregistered and registered trademarks.

Unregistered trademarks

When you create and use a trademark for your company, it becomes intellectual property. Intellectual property is an intangible asset you create in your mind, such as a trademark, copyright, or patent. Intellectual property is protected by law, and others cannot copy it.

Michael Atkins, the founder of Atkins Intellectual Property, explains:

In the United States, you get automatic trademark rights in your brand just by virtue of using it. There’s nothing special you have to do.

Use the letters “TM” to show others that the symbol is yours. If your trademark is for a service, you can use the letters “SM” as a service mark.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office provides a database for registered trademarks. Even if you do not register, you need to check with the USPTO database to be sure you aren’t using a trademark identical or similar to another company’s.

If you use a trademark that is the same as another business, you can get in trouble for infringement. If your trademark is unregistered and another company registers the same trademark, their registered trademark trumps yours. That is true even if you used the trademark before that company was registered.

Registered trademarks

Registered trademarks offer more legal protection than unregistered trademarks. You register your trademark with the USPTO. Once your trademark is registered, you use the letter “R” to show others that it is registered.

A trademark registration offers protection in all 50 states. That means no one in the U.S. can use your trademarked symbol. A USPTO registration does not protect your trademark outside of the United States. To gain a trademark overseas, you must register with countries you want to do business in.

Do I need a trademark for my small business?

Your need for a registered trademark depends on the scale of your business. If you only operate your business in one state, you probably do not need to register.

When you get a business license through your state, you gain legal rights to your company’s name. No one else in your state can use your business’s name.

But, registering with your state does not protect your business’s identity in other states. If you plan on doing business in states other than your company’s registered state, you might want to register your trademark. Registering your trademark prevents problems like doing business in states with companies that operate under the same trademark.

You may also want to register your trademark if you sell goods on the internet. Often, e-commerce merchants sell to customers outside of their business’s home state. A registered trademark will protect your company’s identity when conducting online business in other states.

There are several benefits to registering your trademark:

  • Trademarks are good for communicating your company’s brand. By using specific words and symbols, you can create unique messages about your business. Customers will associate the symbols with your company alone.
  • Trademarks can appreciate value over time. The bigger your business gets, the bigger an asset your trademark becomes. If you decide to sell your business, a trademark could increase the overall worth of your company.
  • You’ll be registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s online database. Inclusion in this database deters other companies from using your trademark. Only you have rights to the registered trademark.

How to register a trademark

To register your trademark, check with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website. The USPTO website’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) allows you to search for other companies who have already registered. You cannot register a trademark if it is already in the database.

File your trademark registration application online through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website. You must provide information such as the categories of goods and services you offer, the date of the first time you used the trademark, and whether there’s a design in the trademark.

The trademark registration costs between $275 and $325. It takes about 90 minutes to complete the application. You should receive a response within six months of submitting the application. You might want a lawyer to help you through the registration process.

For a comprehensive guide on how to trademark and copyright, check out First Site Guide’s free resource.

This is not intended as legal advice; for more information, please click here.

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