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Business Names and Trademarks

Brainstorming potential company names is important for a small business. It helps a startup maximize trademark protection, but crafting a creative business name can be a challenge. Entrepreneurs should make sure their great business name helps them rather than hurts their business.

When you choose a business name for your company, it cannot infringe on another company's trademark. Not only will it expose a small business to legal action, but changing business names also forces entrepreneurs to rebrand. It hurts the brand identity and recognition by target audiences. Alternatively, not trademarking your catchy business name risks having your brand diluted by someone else using it.

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How To Come Up With a Business Name You Can Trademark

When naming your business, keep these three ideas in mind:

  • Is the name available and not in use by another business owner?
  • Can the name receive trademark protection?
  • Is the name available as a domain name or on social media?

Trademark Protection for Creative Business Names

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues small business owners or sole proprietorships trademarks.

trademark is available for a word, phrase, symbol, or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.

service mark is the same as a trademark, except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product. Together, they may be referred to as "marks" generically.

Trademark protection gives the holder exclusive rights to use a name associated with a particular product or service in the registered industry. This protection allows potential customers to recognize the small business and brand. This reputation separates startups from their competitors. It establishes brand name recognition.

If someone tries to use a business name that would confuse potential customers if it was your product or service, you can sue under U.S. trademark law. A trademark infringement lawsuit allows you to stop the other business from using your brand name. Attorney's fees and court costs will also be awarded if you win the case.

Distinctive Names and Trademark Protection

To be protected, a trademark needs to be distinctive. Business entities can come up with entity names that are distinctive, creative, and catchy.

Here are a few options for distinctive names:

  • Fanciful names that do not otherwise exist, like Redbull for energy drinks
  • Arbitrary names where the word exists, but it is not used in the same way as the catchy business name. For example, Apple for computers or Amazon for an e-commerce website
  • Made up names, such as using multiple words to create a business acronym. For example, a limited liability company Olympic weightlifting gym called L.A.B. Gym, which stands for Lifters Against Barbells Gym
  • Purposely misspelled names like The Beatles instead of the bug known as a beetle
  • Names that are suggestive of the underlying product, like Slate for an online magazine

Trademarks do not need to be registered to gain common law protection. They need to be in use. Registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is not required. Still, it is advisable to register because it greatly strengthens your claim to a trademark if a dispute arises after you choose your perfect business name. It also allows you to sue in federal court and collect attorney's fees.

How To Name a Small Business

There are multiple ways for you to brainstorm business name ideas, including:

  • Hiring a brand consultant or branding specialist
  • Utilizing a business name generator online
  • Asking ChatGPT or other artificial intelligence (AI) generators for ideas
  • Checking domain availability for your website name
  • Doing an internet search using a search engine like Google to see if the name you like is in use for the same type of business
  • Making sure there is name availability on social media like Facebook and Instagram

If using AI or website generators, make sure you do a trademark search and internet search before registering with your secretary of state. You can also run the risk of the generator absorbing your information or idea into its database.

Guide To Choosing a Distinctive Name

Choosing a distinctive name that conveys what your business does without using generic terms is difficult.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Keep it simple: A simple or short name makes it easier for your target audience to remember your website domain name. Create a name that is simple to remember and spell. Try to avoid making long, complex names and avoid using any easily misspelled words.
  • Make it unique: This is a challenge for most small business owners when naming their business. Your company name should be unique to increase the odds of trademark protection. On the other hand, you do not want it to be so unique that customers cannot relate it to your business. It should tie into whatever it is you are offering. This typically involves keywords that are not unique at all. Striking this balance is the essence of finding a good name for your business.
  • Avoid generic words: Avoid generic words in your name, such as shoes if you are a shoe company. An example that would likely be denied trademark protection is Bob's Shoes.
  • Avoid geographic names: Avoid using generic geographic names, such as California. You are less likely to be able to register names with a geographic reference for trademark protection. You could add something else to the name to make it more unique. This is what California Pizza Kitchen did. Any of these words are generic on their own, but the combined name is unique and still conveys the meaning of the business.
  • Don't limit new business: Avoid a business name that limits expansion. For instance, expanding to sandals or swimwear may be difficult if you create Bob's High Heels. If your name is too specific, you may find attracting customers to your new products difficult.
  • Ask for input: Talk to family, friends, and professional contacts about any proposed name you brainstorm to see what they think. It is better to find out now rather than after you've spent money on business cards and bought a domain name.
  • Research your competitors: Create a business plan and do your market research on competitors. Make a list of existing businesses that you respect. See if there is anything in common among them. They may be all fanciful names. Maybe they're all conservative names. It will give you an idea of what kind of name you want.

Think of your company's legacy. Don't choose anything too trendy. Your business name needs to sound good in twenty years.

Get Help From a Trademark Attorney

An attorney may not help you develop the perfect name for your company. Still, they can give you legal advice on securing a trademark or protecting your brand. If you need help navigating the often-complicated world of trademark law while starting your business, consider speaking with a trademark attorney or business and commercial lawyer.

See FindLaw's Choosing Your Business Name and Trademarks sections for more articles and resources to help you get started. And when you are ready to start your business legally, use our simple DIY formation process.

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