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What every business needs to know about trademark basics

If you run a business, you want your products or services to stand out to potential customers in order to maximize your sales and profits. Developing a trademark is one way that your business can accomplish this. Trademarks are protections for the name and marking a business will use for advertising and promotion. They are normally considered valid whether a trademark registration has occurred or not, but registering the mark with the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) offers extra legal protection, especially if a conflict arises where one of your competitors wants to use your mark. The PTO offers three options for applying for a trademark:

  • Use application - An application solidifying the use of trademark names or logos that have already been in use
  • Intent to use - An application presenting the trademark you wish to use before you actually start to use it
  • Foreign use - An application from outside the U.S. for trademark protection in the U.S.

Trademark timing

When it comes to promoting your business using your trademark, or fighting back when a competitor threatens the integrity of your trademark, timing is everything. By default, the first person to use the trademark is the one who retains the right to use it. This doesn't mean that two businesses can't have a similar name or logo, but the businesses should not be in direct competition with one another. For example, there may be several companies called "Sunbright" with some kind on sun logo. One may sell dish soap, another may offer counseling services and another might sell summer clothing. Since these companies don't compete, there isn't a threat to the trademark. However, if a business making laundry detergent started using a similar name and logo, the established dish soap company may have cause to protest if they were using the name first.

Benefits of registering a trademark

Since protection from trademark law doesn't depend on registering a mark, many wonder why typing "TM" at the end of the business or brand name isn't enough. While it often is, registration solidifies the action. By working with trademark lawyers to register a mark, you can ensure you are not infringing on some other business's trademark. If necessary, you will be able to make adjustments before you have firmly established your brand and reputation.

If you are first in line for a trademark, having the proper forms filed provides you with a solid source of proof of when you began using the trademark, which will be available to serve as a defense if anyone ever comes along to dispute your rights of use.

Keeping trademarks current and strong

There are a lot of trademarks out there that either have never been used or were used for a while and then neglected to the point where they are no longer recognizable. If a company seems to have abandoned a trademark, it will be harder to fight an infringement, even if it was registered. Trademarks are also stronger if they are distinct rather than vague. For example, the video game Tetris would have a hard time defending its trademark if they had named the game "block shuffle." If you're getting ready to declare a trademark, working with an attorney will ensure you handle the finer details properly so that your business identity stays protected.

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