Trademarks are any word, phrase, symbol, design or combination thereof that identifies a company. The company name “Coca-Cola” is a trademark, as is the Nike swoosh and the sound that plays at the start of every episode of “Law & Order.” Tiffany blue is a trademarked shade, and Usain Bolt’s lighting pose is a trademarked gesture. Trademarks can be almost anything — and as long as they are protected by those who claim them.
Your small business is recognizable to its audience by several trademarks, but to ensure that no competitor takes advantage of your company reputation, you need to go out of your way to keep your trademarks safe. Here are a few steps you need to take to prevent the misuse of your trademarks as long as your business is in operation.
Apply for Trademark Registration
The first and most important step toward preventing other companies from misusing your trademarks is registering your trademarks correctly with the appropriate institutions. Every country has its own trademark registration system, so if you operate internationally, you will need to engage with multiple trademark registration processes.
Application for trademark registration should begin with a search of the current trademark registry, to ensure that no other organization in your industry is utilizing trademarks that are confusingly similar to yours. If you do find a conflict in your search, you should perform additional research to determine who used the marks first. You may be able to claim ownership of the marks if you have strong evidence that you used them first in a commercial capacity — but your case will be weaker because you did not register your marks in a timely manner.
In most cases, you will find that you are the only company in your category using your trademarks. At this point, you can work with a trademark registration firm to apply for registration in all regions where you need protection. You will need to pay fees with your applications, and you may need to pay additional fees to renew your trademark registration in the future, depending on the trademark regulations of the regions in which you do business.
Monitor and Maintain Trademark
Once your trademarks are registered, you are allowed to place the <®> symbol after them to show other companies and consumers that you are working to protect your company and product names, logos and more. However, your trademarks must be in use to benefit from legal protections. If you no longer do business under your registered company name or stop using a certain slogan in your advertisements, you are likely to lose control over that trademark. Other companies could begin using them, and you might be unable to stop them.
This rule exists to prevent unscrupulous folks from registering all manner of words, phrases and graphics as trademarks without any commercial intentions for them. In other corners of intellectual property law, this kind of behavior goes unchecked, with the effect that legitimate entrepreneurs must pay licensing fees to or engage in litigation with grifters who are camping out on certain ideas or concepts.
Another essential component of maintaining your trademark is monitoring the trademark registry for potential new trademarks that may be confusingly similar to your own. In the United States, the Patent and Trademark Office publishes a weekly gazette in which upcoming trademarks are published, so other companies may issue challenges. You might make a habit of reviewing the gazette and searching the registry to eliminate potential conflicts with your marks.
Respond Promptly to Challenges
Even when you do everything in your power to protect your trademarks, other companies may infringe on your marks. Knowingly or unknowingly, other businesses may utilize your name, logo, slogans and more, which may cause confusion within your target audience that leads to lower profits. If you do find another company infringing on your trademarks, you need to send a cease-and-desist letter immediately. In doing so, you demonstrate your active interest in protecting your trademarks. If the company does not alter their use of your trademarks, you will be able to sue them — and as long as your registration is valid and you are upholding other important trademark laws, you should win.
Sure, you could hope that all the attributes of your business’s brand are respected by your competition. However, a much safer, smarter and more proactive approach is to register your trademarks and maintain them as long as you do business.