Interesting Facts About Business Names and Trademarks
As a startup company, entrepreneur, or small business, it is important to know about intellectual property. As a business owner, legal protection for your company name or service mark is essential.
How did these iconic brand names, like Nike, McDonald's, or Coca-Cola, protect their brand identity? As a small business owner, how can you do the same for your new business (even if using a Doing Business As [DBA])? Or you may simply just want to learn more fun facts about trademark rights!
This article provides basic facts about trademarks. It highlights when some of the most legendary business entities' trademarks got their marks registered.
Names and Colors Can Be Trademarks
There are several types of trademarks, including:
- Word mark
- Design mark
- Sound mark
- Color mark
- Scent mark
- Collective mark
- Certification mark
- Trade dress
- Service mark
Many celebrities have trademark registrations for their names or catchphrases. For example, Beyonce's daughter's name, "Blue Ivy," is a federal trademark (although she did have to go through an eight-year legal battle to get it).
While getting your name trademarked might sound fascinating, not everyone can do it. There are certain conditions and requirements, such as:
- Distinctiveness: The name cannot be generic or merely descriptive. It must have a unique quality that sets it apart from other names. Common names like "Joe" would not meet this requirement
- Commercial use: The name is for business purposes, such as selling products or providing services
- Likelihood of confusion: The name should not likely cause confusion with existing marks
- Public figure or celebrity names: These are more challenging to trademark since they are well known
Another example of a unique trademark is color marks. For example, the jewelry company Tiffany & Co. trademarked their signature “Tiffany blue" color. This trademark gives them the exclusive rights to use that color in connection with their specific goods and services. It prevents others from using that color or a similar color in the marketplace.
A fanciful mark is a type of trademark consisting of a unique and invented word or phrase with no connection to the goods or services it represents. Fanciful marks are the strongest and most easily protectable type of trademark. An example of fanciful marks includes "Kodak" for cameras.
Trademark Rights Can Last Forever
Trademark protection can potentially last indefinitely if the trademark is adequately maintained and renewed. As long as a trademark is actively used and renewed, it can provide ongoing protection. The red triangle logo of Bass Brewery is the oldest trademark in existence. The United Kingdom recognized it in 1876.
Consider how long ago some of these trade names and trademark icons got their federal protection:
- Coca-Cola registered its trademark for "nutrient or tonic beverages" in 1893
- Nabisco registered a trademark for sweet treats in 1901
- Listerine has held a trademark on its dental care products since 1903
- Arm & Hammer registered its famous baking soda trademark in 1905
- Campbell's Soup became a trademark in 1906
- Ford obtained a trademark for "explosive engines and their parts" in 1909
- Doublemint and Juicy Fruit Gum were both granted registration of their mark in 1915
- Breyer's Ice Cream has been a registered trademark since 1921
- Canada Dry Ginger Ale registered its trademark in 1922
- Maxwell House has owned "Good to the Last Drop" since 1926
- Pepsi-Cola joined the beverage game as a registered trademark in 1937
Trademarks Are Stronger When They're Random
One of the most essential elements of a strong trademark is its distinctiveness. The more unique a trademark is, the stronger the protection you get. Trademark applications with a similar name to a registered mark will not get approved by the USPTO.
For example, think about Apple computer products. Apples have nothing to do with computers or electronics. So, choosing "Apple" as its trademark was a smart move for MacIntosh. If another tech company wanted to name their product "Granny Smith," they might have a hard time obtaining approval from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Even though the proposed mark uses different words, it's still a type of apple.
However, usually, generic terms cannot be trademarked because they are words or phrases that are commonly unused to describe a particular service or product.
You Can Look Up Trademarks Online
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office launched The Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) on May 5, 2003. It allows users to search and retrieve information on pending trademark applications, registered trademarks, and other trademark law-related data. You should complete a trademark search to avoid trademark infringement. Make sure to look for similar names in registered marks.
TESS is an extensive trademark database containing over 9 million active and inactive registrations filed with the USPTO. It also allows applicants to file trademark applications through the USPTO's Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS).
Federal Trademark Registration
On average, the trademark application process takes around 9 to 12 months to process a registration in the United States.
Federal trademarks enjoy a higher level of protection and priority over conflicting state-level trademarks. Federal trademarks have the trademark symbol ®, while pending trademarks use ™.
Most people think the Secretary of State only handles business formations like a limited liability company or sole proprietorship. The Secretary of State also typically manages state-level trademarks too. State-level trademarks only apply to the geographic area in which they have registrations.
The trademark filing process gives legal protection for intellectual property, giving trademark owners exclusive rights to their logos and business names.
The owner of the mark files the trademark in their name. The owner can be an individual or a business entity.
Common law trademark rights are rights acquired through the actual use of a mark in commerce. This happens without obtaining formal trademark federal registration from the USPTO. Common law trademark rights provide some level of protection but not the higher level of protection that registering a trademark offers.
Trademark Infringement Cases
The Barbie vs. Bratz Battle is one of the most famous trademark infringement cases. In this case, Mattel (the maker of Barbie dolls) sued MGA Entertainment (the maker of Bratz dolls). Mattel won a $100 million verdict for copyright infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets.
Having a similar mark to an existing registered trademark or a trademarked name that causes confusion among consumers can lead to a trademark infringement case.
Getting Legal Advice
The filing fees are generally non-refundable if the USPTO denies your trademark application. So, it's important to get things right the first time. You can visit the USPTO website (uspto.gov) for more general information. If you have questions about the trademark registration process, explore FindLaw's Intellectual Property section for small business owners. Or you can use our lawyer directory to find a trademark attorney near you.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
Contact a qualified business attorney to help you identify how to best protect your business' intellectual property.