Trademark Rights in Website Domains

Business Entrepreneurs by Airsoftpal.com (Creative Commons License)

I regularly get questions about whether a person should use a business name based on whether their desired website domain in available. There is also the reverse – if a company has a registered trademark, is it a deal-breaker if you want to use a similar name for your business? For example, if a company has a registered trademark for The Ooga Booga and the domain theoogabooga.com for their children’s book series, does that mean you can’t have the domain, oogabooga.com for your business?

Ooga Booga is my default fake trademark when describing trademark concepts. As of this writing (3/5/2017), no one has a registered trademark in the U.S. for “Ooga Booga.”

Two Parts to a Trademark
There are two elements to every trademark – the mark itself and the product or service with which you are using it. It’s possible for two different companies to use the same trademark so long as the products and services with which they are using it are so different that no consumer will be confused about what they’re buying. That’s why it’s possible to have Delta Faucet, Delta Airlines, and Delta Dental. No one would think these products and services come from the same company.

Do your Homework when Selecting a Domain
When it comes to selecting your company or product name and the corresponding domain, be thoughtful. Do you some searches to see if other companies have similar domains and how they are using them.

If you see someone using a domain that is similar to yours, or a product or company domain that has a corresponding registered trademark, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for your business plans, but you may want to do further research. There’s nothing wrong with two companies have similar websites as long as you have a legitimate reason for using it and you’re not violating the other company’s rights.

Let’s say you wanted oogabooga.com as your website, examine the difference between your product or service and the registered trademark for The Ooga Booga. They sell children’s books; so as long as your product or service isn’t in the arena as children’s entertainment, education, or related products, you could be ok. Most likely, no one will think that your affiliated with this other company if you’re selling something like wetsuits, wine, or financial planning services.

If you’re in a situation where you don’t want other companies having a similar domain as yours, spend the money to buy these other domains. It’s cheaper and easier to have a slew of domains related to your product rather than invest time and money monitoring, sending cease and desist letter, or pursuing other legal action against these other companies.

Only the Trademark Holder is a Threat
The good news in this type of situation is only the person who owns the trademark or other intellectual property rights can go after you for suspected infringement. If they don’t know or don’t care about what you’re doing, you face any legitimate legal threats.

Of course, when in doubt, consult a trademark lawyer to discuss your thoughts about your business or product name and website domains. If you’re interested in discussing your trademark needs, you can contact me directly or an intellectual property lawyer in your community. I regularly post about legal issues impacting entrepreneurs on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

More Information about Trademarks:

Photo credit: Airsoft Pal

Trademarks: Register or Rebrand

WordPress Swag by Caspar Hübinger from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of my entrepreneur friends recently asked me if he “had to” register the logo for his company. I responded with, “How much would it suck if you had to rebrand?”

Why Register your Trademark
Your trademark is the name, logo, and other branding you put on your products so consumers can tell the difference between your brand and your competition’s. When you have a registered trademark for your brand, you can stop anyone from entering the market with a similar brand on a similar product as you. The law doesn’t like it when your competition tries to ride your coattails by looking too similar to your brand. When you register your trademark, your rights extend to everywhere in the United States, even if you’re not doing business everywhere in the country yet.

If you don’t register your brand, you can only get “common law” trademark rights that are limited to where you’re doing business with your mark. Your competition can use the same or similar brand where you haven’t established yourself. And if they register the brand before you, you may find yourself frozen only to your established marketplace, which may be quite small. Just ask the original Burger King restaurant what that’s like.

Cheaper than Rebranding
What does it cost to have a logo designed?
What about a website?

The fee to submit a trademark application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is $225-400, if it’s only for one type of product or service. Even with the fee to have a proper trademark lawyer submit and track the application, it’s often cheaper to apply for a registered trademark instead of rebrand. If someone else registers your trademark before you, you may be forced to rebrand if you want to continue to grow your business and expand your marketplace to reach more potential customers.

Brand Theft Happens
I have seen and worked on a number of situations where a company could have avoided a lot of heartache and legal bills if they had registered their trademark, because their competition registered the same or similar trademark before they did. Turner Barr essentially had his trademark, Around the World in 80 Jobs, stolen out from under him. He had to cease operations to address the situation. Thankfully for him, his story had a happy ending. Other companies are not as lucky.

A substantial portion of my work involves analyzing, registering, and challenging trademarks. If you need help with your trademark situation, you can contact me directly. I also post about these issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Trademark Registration Workshop for Bloggers

The Anxious Type by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Anxious Type by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’ve been on my soapbox for a while about the importance of registering your trademark if you have a blog. Even if your following is small, you want to stake a claim to your site’s name because if someone registers your name before you, they can essentially shut down your site. If they register your name as a trademark after you’ve started your site, you don’t have to shut down your site, but you can’t grow you market.

This is not a new problem but it is getting more complicated in the online world. The most infamous trademark story I know in the brick-and-mortar world is about two different Burger King restaurants. The most infamous situation in the blogosphere is the Turner Barr situation:

When I speak at social media and blogging conferences, I encourage everyone who has a blog to register their site’s trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). (Ditto for vlogs and podcasts.) A lot of people agree that it’s a good idea; however most people don’t follow through and do it.

The #1 reason I hear why most people don’t register their trademark: the cost.

I’m not going to lie. Registering a trademark is expensive. The filing fee alone is at least $225. But what would suck more – paying for a trademark or having to rebrand because someone else registered it – especially if your plans include making money off your site?

I am almost through the process of registering the trademark for my blog, The Undeniable Ruth. It’s got me thinking that I could do small workshops with bloggers (3-5 participants) that includes an overview of trademarks and then I could lead them through the process of filling out the USPTO trademark application during the session, and then shepherd their applications through the rest of the process. Since it would be in a group setting, I could charge half the price of what I’d normally charge to submit an application for a client (only $499 instead of $1,000).

 

If you want to know more about the legalities of blogging, please watch my Q&A keynote from TechPhx or check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.  You can also contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Bloggers & Vloggers: Register your Trademarks!

Registered by tup wanders from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Registered by tup wanders from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Ever since I heard about the Turner Barr story in 2013, I’ve been on everyone I know – including recreational bloggers and the vloggers – to register their trademarks in at least their sites’ names with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). If this isn’t on your to-do list for this year, take a break from reading this post and go add it right now.

For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember, Turner Barr started an awesome blog called Around the World in 80 Jobs where he writes and creates videos about his travel adventurers and how he works from place to place. It was a simple but brilliant idea. He didn’t register his trademark. I bet the thought never crossed his mind. I bet he never thought that another company would register the trademark “Around the World in 80 Jobs” and essentially shut down his site. Thankfully, Turner was able to resolve the situation in part by publicly calling out the people he suspected stole his idea. He has since registered the trademark for his blog.

When I saw this situation where it looked like another company ripped off an individual blogger’s idea and name for themselves and basically (temporarily) stole it out from under him by registering the trademark, I became scared for every person I know who has an amazing blog or vlog. I don’t want to see them in the same predicament. It also reminded me to be a diligent about reminding and re-reminding my clients who are startup entrepreneurs about the importance or registering their trademarks so they don’t end up in the Burger King situation.

This is the type of situation potentially where someone can steal your idea and you will have to fight to try to get it back. And it’s the type of situation that is easily prevented by registering your trademark first. Once you have a registered trademark with the USPTO, you can stop other people and companies from using a name that is confusingly similar to yours in your industry.

Compared to the heartache, headaches, and what you will pay a lawyer if you end up in a situation like Turner Barr did, filing at trademark application is cheap. The USPTO recently lowered their filing fees so if you did your application yourself (which I don’t recommend) it may cost you only $275. If you’ve never filed the trademark application before, I suggest you at least consult a trademark attorney in advance just so you understand the trademark process including what information you have to give the examining attorney to prove that you’re using your trademark. It may not be as expensive as you fear.

And just to show that I put my money were my mouth is and that the shoemaker’s children have shoes in this situation, I recently submitted a trademark application myself for my personal blog, The Undeniable Ruth. I want to be able to call myself “undeniable” for the rest of my life and this is the first step to ensuring that.

If you have questions or want to talk about your trademark needs, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, or you can send me an email.

Check the USPTO Database Before You Brand

Fake Brands (Weird News No. 4) by "Caveman Chuck" Coker from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Fake Brands (Weird News No. 4) by “Caveman Chuck” Coker from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I asked my friends who work in marketing, who create campaigns and brands for a living, whether they check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database before finalizing a project for a client. I was surprised when all of them said, “No.”  To me, this would be an obvious step in the brainstorming or idea development process.

Let’s go over a little bit about trademarks. A trademark is the name, slogan, logo, etc. you put on your company or products to differentiate them from your competition. A trademark has two components – the mark itself and your product or service. That’s why it’s permissible for two unrelated companies to have similar names – like Delta Faucets and Delta Airlines. You can’t put a trademark on your company or product that is so similar to your competition that consumers are going to be confused about what they’re buying.

If you create a brand but don’t register it with the USPTO, you only get common law protection for it which extends only as far as your geographic market. You also risk being in the Burger King situation where you could be limited in your ability to expand if someone registers your trademark after you’ve started using it.

When a company registers their trademark, they get the exclusive right to use their mark on their category of goods and services everywhere in the United States. No one can enter the marketplace with a confusingly similar name on similar products or services, even if they do it in a geographic area where the trademark owner isn’t doing business. They can send you a letter demanding that you rebrand or sue you for infringement. This happened to a friend of mine who had a dog training business that had a similar name to a dog trainer who lived across the country. Since the other guy registered his trademark for dog training, he had the authority to make my friend change her business’ name.

The USPTO trademark database isn’t that hard to use if you’re only looking up words. When you are researching potential names and slogans, make sure you look up various spellings of the word(s) and watch out for the word you want in other languages. It’s a good idea to verify with a trademark that the name or slogan you want as your trademark is available. You don’t want to invest a lot of time, money, and energy in creating a brand that you can’t have. I’ve worked with too many companies who have had to rebrand their company or a product because they got a cease and desist letter from someone who had registered the name.

I also made a video about the importance of checking the USPTO database when selecting a brand.

I’m also a huge advocate of registering the trademark in your blog because if someone else takes your name, it can essentially shut down your site. If you want to chat more about trademarks, feel free to 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 Your Own Name

0688 Pittsburgh - Senator John Heinz History Center by Klaus Nahr from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

0688 Pittsburgh – Senator John Heinz History Center by Klaus Nahr from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently a friend posted on my Facebook page, “I’m considering trademarking my name. Can I do that?”

Yes you can, but it’s a little complicated. Let’s start with some trademark basics.

There are five ways to describe a potential trademark: fanciful, arbitrary, suggestive, descriptive or generic. Fanciful, arbitrary, and suggestive marks can be registered on what’s called the primary registry of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as soon as you’re using them in commerce. When yo have a registered trademark, no one can enter the market in your industry and use your trademark or something confusingly similar to it. Generic marks can never be registered. Descriptive marks fall in between these two groups.

Descriptive trademarks describe the product they’re attached to. If you have a descriptive mark, you can put on the USPTO’s secondary registry when you start using it in commerce, but you can’t bump it to the primary registry until have “acquired distinctiveness,” which typically happens after five years of continuous use.

When you name your business after yourself – i.e., John Smith Graphic Design (and your name is John Smith), you have a descriptive trademark. If you’ve only been in business for a short time, the USPTO doesn’t want to give you the exclusive rights to your name in your industry – thus all the other John Smiths who are graphic designers couldn’t call their companies, “John Smith Graphic Design” or something similar to it. They make you wait until you’ve been in business for five years before giving you nationwide exclusivity over your company name in your industry.

So can my friend register a trademark for her name? Probably, but I’d have to take a closer look at her situation to determine how long she’s been using it as a trademark and whether someone else has already registered the same name in the same industry.

If you have any questions about whether you can register your desired trademark, feel free to connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, or send me an email. You can also subscribe to the firm’s monthly newsletter. If you want more information about Carter Law Firm, please visit the homepage.

Intellectual Property in Comic Books

Comic Books by Sam Howzit from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Comic Books by Sam Howzit from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I had the pleasure of presenting on Comic Book Creator Rights with the award-winner comic author Mike Baron at Phoenix Comicon last weekend. We talked about how important it is for writers and artists to understand what rights they have in their work and the various ways they can protect it.

Copyright
An artist or writer has copyright rights in their work the moment they put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. As the owner of their work, they can control where their work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made.

Unlike books where a complete story is often contained in a single volume, a comic book story may be broken up into several 22-page issues. One thing Mike and I suggested to our audience was registering the copyright in the “story bible” as well as each issue that the artist creates. A story bible is a master document that lays out the setting and norms of that universe and the backstory and characteristics of each major character.

The copyright laws regarding infringement for published and unpublished works are different, and under the current laws (that are in need of overhaul), a work that is released only online is “unpublished.” To maximize your options for recourse (i.e., financial damages), I advise artists to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office before they release it if it is unpublished. Mike also suggested doing a short run of each issue so the work will qualify as “published” and the rules about when you have to register to be eligible for what’s called statutory damages are more favorable.

Trademark
A comic book artist could have several trademarks related to their series – the name of the series, logos, slogans, and the name and possibly depiction of the characters. Any or all of these could be trademarks used to market the artist’s work.

For each of these potential trademarks, it’s a good idea to run a search on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) trademark database to make sure that another artist doesn’t already have the exclusive right to use that trademark in relation to comic books or similar products. If they do, they can force the other person to rebrand.

If the desired trademarks are available, putting a superscript “TM” next to them will put everyone on notice that the artist is using them as trademarks, not just elements in their series.  Registering them with the USPTO will increase their value and give the artist the exclusive right to use those trademarks. No one else in the industry could have the same trademark in the U.S. Registration also increases their value and may make the artist’s work more desirable if their goal is to be acquired.

Identifying and creating a strategy to protect your intellectual property is complicated, so if you want to talk more about this subject, feel free to  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.

Can You Trademark & Copyright a Phrase?

What's not wrong with PIPA or SOPA? by opensourceway from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

What’s not wrong with PIPA or SOPA? by opensourceway from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I saw this tweet come through my feed over the weekend.


It made me grin, and then my big dorky legal brain kicked in and had to analyze the possibilities.

Can You Trademark a Phrase?
It depends.

If a phrase is being used as a tagline or slogan for a company or product – think “M’m! M’m! Good!” for Campbell’s Soup or “Just Do It” for Nike – then yes, you can trademark it. If it’s just a phrase that’s not connected to a product or service, then it’s not trademarkable.

The purpose of the trademark is to differentiate similar products and services from each other so consumers know what they’re buying. When you register a trademark, you have to tell the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office what you’re claiming as your trademark (name, logo, slogan, etc.) and on what product or service you’re using it. A cool phrase without a product or service is just a phrase. It can’t be protected with a trademark.

Can You Copyright a Phrase?
Probably not.

The purpose of a copyright is to entice authors and artists to create works by giving them the exclusive right to control where their work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. They have these rights the moment the original work is “fixed in any tangible medium.”  A phrase is often too short to be original so it doesn’t qualify for a copyright, even if it is fixed in a tangible medium like on paper or a digital file. If a person had a copyright in a phrase, they could stop others from using it in their work and it would create a big mess.

Think about Paris Hilton and “that’s hot.” She does have a trademark that phrase in conjunction with “multimedia entertainment services” and alcoholic beverages. She can stop you from using “that’s hot” as a slogan or product name in those industries, but she can’t stop you from saying “that’s hot” in general.

What about “Terminally Soulless Douche Canoe?”
“Terminally Soulless Douche Canoe” is an awesome phrase. You could use that as a company name, product name, or slogan if you want, but you have to be able to identify what industry that company or product is in. Unfortunately, even though I think it’s highly creative, it’s too short to get a copyright by itself. If it was part of a larger work – such as an essay, blog post, poem, book, or integrated into a work of art – the artist would likely have copyright protection for the larger work, but probably not for the phrase alone.

For more on the difference between trademark and copyright:

If you want to chat more about trademarks and copyrights, 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.