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What is a trademark?

A trademark can be any word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination of these things that identifies your goods or services. It’s how customers recognize you in the marketplace and distinguish you from your competitors.

A trademark:

  • Identifies the source of your goods or services.

  • Provides legal protection for your brand.

  • Helps you guard against counterfeiting and fraud.

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Did you know?

You become a trademark owner as soon as you start using your trademark with your goods or services. You establish rights in your trademark by using it, but those rights are limited, and they only apply to the geographic area in which you’re providing your goods or services. If you want stronger, nationwide rights, you’ll need to apply to federally register your trademark.

A registered trademark provides broader rights and protections than an unregistered one.

Strong trademarks

It’s important to have a strong trademark that is inherently distinctive. This means your trademark quickly and clearly identifies you as the source of your goods or services. The stronger your trademark is, the more easily you can prevent others from using it without your permission. Weak trademarks can be difficult and costly for you to defend because they don’t have the same legal protections as stronger trademarks.

Strong trademarks are suggestive, fanciful, or arbitrary. Weak trademarks are descriptive or generic. 

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Acceptable trademarks

Strong trademarks are typically creative or unique, setting you apart from your competitors. These trademarks include fanciful, arbitrary, or suggestive trademarks.

Fanciful trademarks are invented words. They only have meaning in relation to their goods or services. For example, Exxon® for petroleum or Pepsi® for soft drinks.

Arbitrary trademarks are actual words that have no association with the underlying goods or services. Think of the term “apple.” If an apple orchard tried to register the word “apple” as a trademark for the type of apples they grow, that trademark wouldn’t be registerable. But, Apple® has been registered as a trademark for computers. Apple® for computers is unique.

Suggestive trademarks are words that suggest some quality of the goods or services, but don’t state that quality of the goods or services outright. Consider Coppertone® for sun-tanning products. The trademark gives the impression that using Coppertone® suntan oil will make your skin shimmer like copper.

Why register your trademark?

The benefits include:

  • Trademark is listed in the USPTO database of registered and pending trademarks. This provides public notice to anyone searching for similar trademarks. They will see your trademark, the goods and services on your registration, the date you applied for trademark registration, and the date your trademark registered.

  • Legal presumption that you own the trademark and have the right to use it. So, in federal court, your registration certificate proves ownership, eliminating the need for copious amounts of evidence.

  • Can use your registration as a basis for filing for trademark protection in foreign countries.

  • Right to bring a lawsuit concerning the trademark in federal court.

  • May use the federal trademark registration symbol, ®, with your trademark to show that you are registered with us. This may help deter others from using your trademark or one too similar to yours.

  • Record your registration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). They can stop the importation of goods with an infringing trademark.

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