How to Register a Trademark with the USPTO

USPTO Seal by cytech from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

USPTO Seal by cytech from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’ve had several people ask me what is involved in registering a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Your trademarks include the names, logos, tag lines, and anything else you put on your products and services to inform customers about the source and quality of what they’re buying.

Once you have a trademark registered with the USPTO, you have the exclusive right to use your trademark on your goods or services anywhere in the U.S.  If anyone tries to start similar business or sell a similar product with trademark that is too similar to yours, you can make them change it. The only companies that can have the same trademark as you are companies who were using the same trademark before you registered yours with the USPTO (i.e., the Burger King situation) or companies that use a similar trademark but on a product that is so different from yours that no one would think that they are owned by the same company (i.e., Delta Faucets, Delta Dental, and Delta Airlines).

Here is the process that I go through to register a client’s trademark with the USPTO:

1. Clarify what the trademark is and what products or services it’s being used on. You can only claim rights to a trademark that you’re using in commerce or expect to use within six months.

2. Determine if the desired trademark is trademarkable – not every trademark is. Your trademark can’t be the product itself.

3. Check the USPTO database to make sure no one else has registered the same trademark on a similar product as my client’s.

4. Evaluate if others are using the same trademark without registering it with the USPTO. Once your have a registered trademark, these companies can keep using it in their established geographic market, but they can’t expand without rebranding.

5. Complete the USPTO trademark application which includes determining the best description of the product and which class(es) of products we’ll be applying for. The USPTO charges a fee for each class of products you register the mark for.

6. Submit the application to the USPTO with the filing fee.

7. Wait three or four months for the USPTO to get around to reviewing your application. Yes, their backlog is that big. Once I submit an application, I typically check on it at the beginning of each month to see if it’s been assigned to a reviewing attorney at the USPTO.

8. Respond to any Office Actions if we receive any from the USPTO. An Office Action is a communication from the reviewing attorney that says that there’s a problem with the application. They may request clarification, a disclaimer, or claim that the desired mark can’t be registered. Depending on what the USPTO and my client wants will determine how I respond and how much work will be required.

9. Once the USPTO approves the mark, they will publish it on its official gazette. This puts everyone on notice that your mark is about to be approved. If no one objects within thirty days, your trademark will be registered.

You should expect the entire registration process to take at least eight months, but it could be longer. Once you have a registered trademark, you can use the ® next to it. You will continue to have your trademark rights as long as you’re using it in commerce. The USPTO requires that you send in update affidavits periodically that verifies that you’re using the trademark. If you don’t use your trademark for three consecutive years, it will be considered “abandoned” and anyone can use it.

If you’re looking for more information about what a trademark is and the benefits of registering it with the USPTO, I made a video about it.

If you want to chat more about trademark registration, you can connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How To Trademark a Business Name

Can programming language names be trademarks? by opensourceway from Flickr

Can programming language names be trademarks? by opensourceway from Flickr

Last week a friend asked me if a business could trademark their name. Anyone who’s spent much time with me knows that the answer to every legal question is “It depends.” In this case it depends on whether your business name is trademarkable and if anyone else had claimed the same or a similar name for your category of goods or services.

When you start a business, check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database to see if anyone has registered the name you want to use (or a similar one) for selling the same goods and services as you. If someone’s already using the name you want, you will likely be infringing on their trademark rights if you use the name on your products. They could force you to change your name and rebrand if you use the name that someone’s already registered. If you were using the business name on your products and someone registers the name before you, you’ll be in the Burger King situation where you can keep using your name, but only in your established market.

Once you establish that your desired name hasn’t been registered by someone else, you have to look at whether the name you want is trademarkable. Not every business or product name can be a registered trademark. Here are the five types of trademarks.

1. Fanciful Marks: Fanciful marks are words that didn’t exist before you stuck it on your products. Examples include Exxon and Kodak. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry.

2. Arbitrary Marks: Arbitrary marks are words in real life, but they are stuck on a product that has no connection to the word. For example, the mark “Apple” for computers, cell phones, and digital music players is an arbitrary mark. The fruit has nothing to do with digital machines and gadgets. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry.

3. Suggestive Marks: Suggestive marks are marks where if you think about it, you can make a connection between the mark and the product. “Playboy” as a mark for a men’s magazine is a suggestive mark. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry. It’s sometimes hard to discern the difference between suggestive and descriptive marks.

4. Descriptive Marks: Descriptive marks merely describe the product. This includes businesses where the owner names the business after themselves. These marks can be registered on the USPTO main registry after they’ve established “acquired distinctiveness,” which usually means you’ve been using the mark for five years.

5. Generic Marks: Generic marks are the name of the products themselves. It would be if you had an apple orchard and wanted to sell your apples using the mark “Apples.” If the USPTO let you register that mark, no other apple farmers could call their apples “apples” without infringing on your trademark rights. Generic marks can never be registered with the USPTO.

This video may help. You can watch it below or see it here.

If you want to know if your business name can be your trademark and the risks and rewards surrounding registering your mark, contact a trademark attorney in your community.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

The Oatmeal Sued Again – This Time for Trademark Infringement

One of the Greeting Cards available on TheOatmeal.com

I suspect he has a harder fight on his hands this time around.

Ars Technica released a story this week that The Oatmeal (aka Matt Inman) is going back to court, courtesy of Oatmeal Studios. Oatmeal Studios is a greeting card company that’s suing the artist for trademark infringement because he’s selling greeting cards on The Oatmeal website.

Matt became more infamous than ever with his legal issues related to FunnyJunk earlier this year. I think that was a pretty easy fight for him to win, but this time he has a more formidable opposition.

According to the USPTO, Oatmeal Studios has been selling greeting cards under this brand since 1978 – that means they’ve been selling cards since before Matt was born. In 2004, the company registered the trademark “Oatmeal Studios” for use on “greeting cards, gift cards, occasion cards, paper party decorations, writing pads, note pads, and memo pads.” That means no one can start using “Oatmeal Studios” as a trademark on these or similar products anywhere in the United States after the mark was registered.

Matt has had his site since at least 2009 according to the WhoIs records. He started drawing comics and now he also sells greetings cards, prints, mugs, t-shirts, stickers and posters on his site.

I suspect Oatmeal Studios thinks “The Oatmeal” is too similar to “Oatmeal Studios” so they want to shut down at least the greeting card arm of his operation. Since they have the federally registered trademark, they might succeed, but I think there’s a strong argument that the marks are different enough and the products are different enough that Matt could be allowed to sell his cards because no consumer would ever confuse the two products.

Let’s take a brief look at the factors the court looks at when deciding the likelihood of confusion.

  1. Strength of the Plaintiff’s Mark: “Oatmeal Studios” for a greeting card company sounds like an arbitrary mark to me, which is a pretty strong mark. This makes it more likely that consumers will be confused about the difference between “Oatmeal Studios” and “The Oatmeal.”
  2. Degree of Similarity between the Marks: The marks are pretty similar. One has an added “the” and the other has “studios.” I think the fact that Matt doesn’t have “studios” or something along those lines as part of his name helps him. “Oatmeal” describes the company on one side but “Oatmeal” describes him as a person on the other.
  3. Proximity of Products: Matt sells his cards on his site. Oatmeal Studio’s cards look like the cards I see in Walgreens and stationary stores. The fact they’re not sold in the same places helps Matt’s case.
  4. Likelihood that the Plaintiff will Bridge the Gap: These companies both sell greeting cards, but I doubt Oatmeal Studios will be selling signed prints, posters, mugs, t-shirts, or stickers anytime soon.
  5. Evidence of Actual Confusion: Has anyone been confused about the differences between Oatmeal Studios and The Oatmeal? I doubt it.
  6. Defendant’s Good Faith in Adopting the Mark: If memory serves, Matt’s alter ego The Oatmeal came from his activities in the gaming world. It had nothing to do with Oatmeal Studios. I suspect when he started his site to share his comics that he wasn’t thinking of creating a line of greeting cards.
  7. Quality of the Defendant’s Product: Go check out Oatmeal Studios’ website. I see no similarities between these cards and The Oatmeal’s greeting cards except that they’re both on paper. I think they’re of equal quality as paper products, but when you look at the quality and characteristics of the artwork, they’re not similar at all.
  8. Sophistication of the Buyer: People who buy The Oatmeal products specifically seek out Matt’s work. They will not even thing for a second that Oatmeal Studios is his work.

I think there’s a good chance that Matt can argue that there is no likelihood of consumer confusion when it comes to these two brands. The names may be similar, but I think the products are different enough that Matt has a good shot at winning. I hope this case also inspires Matt to register his trademark for his products to avoid similar problems in the future.

You can connect with me via TwitterGoogle+Facebook, and LinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.