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.

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Celebrity Trademark Woes

Ivy Leaves by D H Wright from Flickr

Ivy Leaves by D H Wright from Flickr

In the last week there have been a few stories about celebrities running into trouble with prospective trademarks. I thought I’d break down the two major stories I’ve heard.

Blue Ivy
Jay-Z and Beyonce had a daughter earlier this year and named her Blue Ivy Carter. (Why do celebrities give their kids such stupid names?) According to the news report, Jay-Z filed an application to trademark her name within days of her birth. It seems very strange to me that a high priority of a new parent is starting a product line based on their kid’s name.

To have a trademark, you have to select a mark and the product or service you’re going to use it with. A mark can be anything that will differentiate your product or services from the competition – a word, a tag line, a color, a scent, a sound, etc. Its purpose is to inform consumers about the source and the quality of the goods they’re buying. Once you register a mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, no one can use a similar mark on similar goods and services because it might lead to consumer confusion.

Jay-Z’s trademark plan hit a bit of a snag. When he applied for the trademark, he was likely informed that there are several registered trademarks featuring the phrase “blue ivy.” One is an event and wedding planning service, another is an online furniture retailer, and another is a retail store that sells clothing, jewelry, accessories, and giftware.

Jay-Z and Beyonce could register “Blue Ivy Carter” as a trademark, but not to sell a good or service that was similar to one of the existing registered marks. It appears they’ve registered the mark for skin care products, baby products, ring tones, key rings, and accessories among other things. The list is disgustingly extensive.

The best part of the trademark record is where it says, “The name ‘BLUE IVY CARTER’ identifies a living individual whose consent is of record.” That’s funny.

Khroma
The other trademark story I heard recently involves the Kardashians. Apparently they plan to release a makeup line called Khroma Beauty that is expected to be sold in Sears and CVS Pharmacies. The problem they’re running into is the fact that there’s a salon called Chroma Makeup Studio in Hollywood that sells its own Chroma brand of makeup. I couldn’t discern in a quick search if the studio owner had registered the trademark.

The general rule in trademark is that it’s not enough to have a different spelling of the same word as your competition’s mark. For example, if someone owed an “Alligator Furniture Store” in your city, you probably couldn’t open a competing store called “Allig8tor Furniture.”

Even without registration, the owner of the Chroma mark gets the exclusive rights to use his mark in commerce wherever the market has been established. If nothing else, he might have a valid argument to keep Khroma makeup out of the stores near his studio. He’s asked the Kardashians to change the name of their makeup.

When selecting a potential mark, it’s a good idea to check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to see if someone has already registered the mark you want to use on similar goods and services. If they are, you’ll have to pick a new trademark.

It’s also prudent to run a simple Google search to see if someone is using the mark in commerce without registering it. If they are, you’ll have to consider whether it would be better to pick something new or use a similar mark knowing that the other user has the exclusive right to use the mark where they’re established. If you register your similar mark, you can use it everywhere in the country except the areas where your competition established itself prior to your registration.

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