By Melissa Thompson
When you’re building your brand, there is a lot to consider. Choosing your business name, logo, and brand slogan is a painstaking process. The choices you make today could define your brand for decades, and if all goes well, for centuries. During the process of building my own brand, I sought out the advice of some trademark attorneys, and what they taught me saved me a lot of time, stress, and money.
In the eyes of the public, your trademark is your brand, and it’s important to plan in advance and take steps to protect your intellectual assets.
Here are four tips I’ve used for creating and protecting my trademark that will work for your small business as well.
1. Be original.
If your business’s name is unlike anything else on the market, it will be easier to defend, and also easier for your customers to distinguish. If you name your business, say, Pizza Delivery, every pizza place will have those words on their website.
Joseph Mandour, managing partner and an intellectual property attorney with Mandour & Associates, stresses the importance of choosing a unique trademark. “You want your trademark to be memorable, and from a legal standpoint, distinctive names are ideal,” he says. “Generic and descriptive names, especially in a global market, are more difficult to defend.”
When you register your trademark, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will reject your application if your name is too similar to a trademark already registered in relation to similar goods or services. Before you finalize your name choice, do a trademark search.
You can use the USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System on your own or hire a trademark attorney or service. I was fortunate in naming my business, because no one else had ever filed or used a similar name. The USPTO database does not include unregistered trademarks, and you could potentially face a challenge from a business that was the first to use the name you choose, even if they have not filed a trademark application.
2. Apply for a trademark.
Once you’ve settled on a name or slogan and verified that there are no conflicts, it’s important to apply for a trademark. Your trademark is industry-specific and only applies to the business you are involved in. You’ll be asked for a list of goods and services you intend to provide under this brand.
3. Respect the mark.
When you have established your trademark, you need to respect it. Renewal fees come due every 10 years and must be paid on time, and there is also a renewal to file after the first five years. Filings with the USPTO are not all there is to protect your trademark. On your website and all marketing materials, include the appropriate trademark symbol for each reference to your trademark. Visible documentation will help you if you are challenged in court.
I have been challenged several times because of certain images I’ve used on my website from stock photo or creative commons sources. I’ve won in every single instance because I always visually document and attribute the proper marks on all images I use.
4. Police your trademark.
The protection granted by registering your trademark exists only in the court. There is no trademark police prowling the web looking for violators. It’s up to you to locate violators and take action. As a trademark owner, you have a duty to do so. Use the USPTO database to watch for others applying for trademarks similar to yours. If you find a violation, a cease-and-desist letter from your lawyer may be enough to convince them to choose a different name.
Some companies will choose to fight it out in court. Mandour says most will back down from aggressive actions, though. “We like to litigate fast and aggressively, which often leads to positive outcomes for our clients,” he says.
Protecting your trademark is a big responsibility. While you’re diligently searching out people infringing on your rights, other people will be looking at ways to challenge your claim. A strong, unique name and a thorough search for similar names will help you avoid trouble from the start, but you should always be prepared to fight for your rights.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.
PUBLISHED ON: DEC 12, 2017