Your ideas, your brand, your logo—these are the pieces to a successful campaign, whether you’re starting up a new business or creating a non-profit. Just like anything that belongs to you, these things can be compromised or stolen—which is why it’s important to trademark your intellectual property.
The International Trademark Association (INTA) has a great resource page available to the public. These resources walk you through trademark basics, including international rights, trademark registration, terms and definitions, counterfeiting and more. These documents are intended for a non-legal audience for the most part, so they break down complex legal jargon into easily digestible content. There’s a lot to go over here, but what would you prefer: some focused reading, or potentially losing the legal right to your brand? That being said, we know that idea theft sucks, so we’ve pulled out some key points to keep in mind:
Arbitrary or Suggestive?
There are different levels of trademark protection under the law: arbitrary/fanciful, suggestive, descriptive and generic. Arbitrary/fanciful is the most protected category, so you’ll want to use brand names, logos and slogans that fall under this umbrella term when possible. What exactly does this mean? An arbitrary mark is one that bears no logical relationship to the underlying product, like the way that “Pepsi” and “Coca-Cola” represent soft drinks without mentioning food or drink in any way. These are heavily protected by trademark law.
Shoot for “suggestive” trademarks if you don’t have a huge advertising/marketing budget. That way the name of your idea/company/mark somewhat implies the services/product being offered. This means that you don’t have to build brand recognition from nothing. For example, you might be able to guess what “Citibank” offers (financial services) just by the name. This is what is meant by “suggestive”.
Avoid “Descriptive” Trademarks
By contrast, descriptive marks are the least protected and they tend to describe a basic characteristic or quality of the product, meaning that they aren’t inherently distinctive. Descriptive marks might describe a product according to its color, odor, function, dimensions, ingredients and so on. For example, “All Bran” is a brand of bran cereal and the name directly describes the contents. Descriptive marks rely on having a “secondary meaning” (e.g. a brand identity) in order to defend against trademark infringement. If you don’t have millions sitting in the bank, trademark cases over these topics may be hard to defend.
Register Your Trademark
You can claim your rights to a trademark in two ways: use the designated mark in commerce before any other party/individual, or register the mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). If you are the first to claim and use your trademark, and it qualifies for protection, you should register it with the USPTO immediately. It’s always a good idea to have copyright paperwork to back your claims. It may be challenging to prove without a shadow of a doubt that you were the first to use the trademark, so cover all your bases and file the paperwork as soon as possible.
Check Available URLs
You have a great idea. You have a great name and trademark. Now you need a website. Having an online presence is crucial in almost every industry these days. You’ll want your URL to resemble your name/brand/trademark as closely as possible. It would be a shame to come up with a stellar product name only to realize that the corresponding URL is already being used. Do your research before committing to a brand name—and be sure to find a catchy domain that your clients or consumers won’t be able to forget.
Trademark law can be a pain to navigate, but it’s also in place to protect you, your ideas and your work. When creating a company, campaign, or product, keep trademark best practices in mind and be sure to abide by the law to avoid costly legal action.
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Photos: Shutterstock / Bloomicon, Shutterstock / MAHATHIR MOHD YASIN, Shutterstock / Peshkova