If You’re Going to “Wing It” as an Entrepreneur

“Yay!!” by Subharnab Majumdar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Plenty of entrepreneurs start out as a person or two, a business idea, and a shoestring budget. They know their craft but have limited or not experience starting or running a business. They don’t know what they don’t know – and that’s what gets them into trouble.

Many entrepreneurs employ the “we’ll learn as we go” approach to operating a business. Often times these are smart people, but if they get too focused on doing their business that they don’t take care of business within their operation, it can lead to costly mistakes: thousands of dollars in legal expenses and painful heartache to try to fix a problem that was completely avoidable.

Real-Life Facepalm Moments
I’ve had countless times where a business owner comes to me for help and I cringe and think, “We could have helped you avoid this if you had come to us sooner.” This is just a sample of my facepalm moments as a lawyer:

KAWS “At This Time” Sculpture by Guilhem Vellut from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

  • Owners who don’t create a business entity: put their personal assets at risk if the business gets sued;
  • LLC with multiple owners and no operating agreement: painful business “divorce” when things didn’t work out between owners;
  • Filing a trademark application with the USPTO that wasn’t trademarkable: the application might have had a chance if the description of the products and services was written more effectively;
  • Not filing a trademark and your competition files a trademark application that’s confusingly similar to or the same as yours: costly to make a claim against them and it may not be successful, which could force you to rebrand even though you were using it first;
  • Flawed customer contracts: doesn’t fully protect the company’s interests or address all likely contingencies;
  • Hiring a third-party contractor without a contract: if the person is hired to create an original work for the company, the company won’t own the copyright in what they hired the person to create and may have to pay to acquire it;
  • Working without a contract: so many problems. Whenever I get a call about a business deal gone bad, my first question is usually, “What does your contract say?” (Ideally, you want to be in a situation where, if the other side doesn’t perform as you agreed you can essentially respond with, “F*ck you, pay me.”)

If You’re Going to “Wing It”
If you are starting a business, my unsolicited advice is “Do your homework.” Invest the time to learn what goes into running your business and figure out what you don’t know. Reach out to established entrepreneurs to ask for their advice and avail yourself to resources in your community. In Arizona, we have dozens of these organizations like Arizona Small Business Association, Local First Arizona, and SCORE.

Even if you don’t think you can afford it, look into hiring a business and intellectual property lawyer for an hour. Bring them your ideas of what you want to do, and ask for their recommendations on how to make it happen. A good lawyer will respect your budget and tell you what you can do yourself and what you should hire a lawyer do for you. They can also recommendations resources to help you based on their experiences helping others.

If I’ve learned one thing as a lawyer it is that it’s easier and cheaper to prevent problems than to fix them.

True Story
Years ago, I worked with a new company where the owners hired me to create their operating agreement. I asked a lot of questions about things like intellectual property rights, compensation, and worst-case scenarios (e.g. disability of an owner) to create custom provisions for this document.

A few years later, the owners realized it wasn’t working out between then and decided to part ways. Their operating agreement dictated how they would address this situation, and they hired us again to revise the agreement to account for the exit of one of the owners. The process was professional, respectful, and cost-effective. I’m sure there were hurt feelings on both sides, but having this operating agreement helped the owners mange them and made for a smooth transition.

If you want more information about the legal dos and don’ts of starting and running a business, you can send me an email (Note: I can’t give advice to non-clients), and I maintain a mailing list where I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

The 10 Legal Commandments of Entrepreneurship

“Stained Glass Window Full of Light and Color” by Stock Photos for Free from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Since becoming a lawyer in 2011, I’ve had the privilege of working with businesses on a variety of legal issues. Looking back at some of the most cringe-worthy moments I’ve experiences I’ve had and heard about from other business and intellectual property lawyers, I’ve come up with a list of the 10 legal commandments of entrepreneurship:

 

1. Thou shall have a business entity.

When you start a business, create a business entity – an LLC or corporation. Your accountant can tell you which option is best for you. By separating the business from your personal assets, you limit your personal liability if the business is sued. If you open a business without an entity (aka a sole proprietorship), you don’t have this layer of protection.

 

2. Thou shall maintain your corporate veil.

Creating a business entity is how you begin to limit your liability, and you perfect that protection with a “corporate veil.” This means having a separate bank account and credit card for the business, and the business accounts pay for business expenses and your personal accounts pay for personal expenses. This creates a clear delineation between where the company ends and the person begins in terms of your finances. If the company is sued and loses, it’s clear which assets belong to the company and your person assets are protected.

 

3. Thou shall have a signed contract at the beginning of a business relationship.

When you are hired by a client or hire someone, start with a signed contract. A contract is a relationship-management document. It is your master document that puts everyone on the same page regarding their responsibilities. This will help you avoid confusion and resolve problems. When a client comes to me with a problem with a customer, I often start by asking “What does your contract say?”

 

4. Thou shall be thoughtful and careful about looking online for a contract template.

Looking at templates online is a good place to get ideas about terms you might want to have in your contract, but don’t indiscriminately use any contract you find. You don’t know where it came from or whether it’s suitable for your needs.

 

5. Thou shall take the time to fully read and understand a contract before signing it.

Never be afraid to ask questions or request changes when considering a contract offered to you. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand, because if you sign it and later regret it, you may be stuck with it.

 

6. Thou shall respect others’ copyrights.

Do not use others’ work without permission. Create your own original content. It’s ok to be inspired by and quote others, but add something to the conversation. If we’re talking about images, do not pull any image you find using a regular Google search. Seek out sources that provide licenses for use, including images available under Creative Commons. If there is an image you want to use that’s not available, contact the copyright holder and ask for permission. To date, I’ve never had anyone say, “No.”

 

7. Thou shall check the USPTO before branding a company or product.

When entrepreneurs think “branding,” lawyers think “trademark.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a database where you can see what company names, product names, and logos others have applied for and registered for their products and services. You don’t want to fall in love with, or invest a lot of time and money in, a branding idea to find out that it’s already been claimed by someone else.

 

8. Thou shall outsource your taxes.

Every entrepreneur needs an accountant. Let them do what they’re good at.

In the time it would take you to try to do your own taxes, you could make more than enough money to pay an accountant to do your taxes for you.

 

9. Thou shall consult thy attorney.

Even when you want to do things yourself, talk to your lawyer to make sure you’re not setting yourself and your business up for future problems. My most cringe-worthy moments as a lawyer have been problems clients created for themselves that we could have helped them avoid completely if they had told us what they were thinking about doing. It is easier and cheaper to prevent legal problems than to fix them.

 

10. Thou shall act with integrity.

Put your energy into your own business, creating quality products or services for your audience.

You don’t need to stoop to bad-mouthing the competing, using trademarks that are confusing similar to others, or ride other’s coattails by doing things like using a web domain that will allow you to pull an audience based on someone else’ popularity (e.g., cybersquatting). Be so good at what you do that you don’t need to use others to make a name for yourself.

One last note: If you’re an entrepreneur, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Accountants help you make money, lawyers help you keep it, and your peers will share their experiences so you can learn from them. If you are an entrepreneur, or have plans to become one, I hope you have people around you who can help you be successful.

If you want additional information about the legal dos and don’ts of starting and running a business, I maintain a mailing list where I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. Please add yourself if you’re interested. You can also contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

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

What Went Wrong with Fate Brewing Company

Photo Courtesy of Fate Brewing Company (Scottsdale, AZ)

Photo Courtesy of Fate Brewing Company (Scottsdale, AZ)

Earlier this month, Fate Brewing Company announced that they were changing their name to McFate Brewing Company.
Wait…what?! Is this awesome local brewery turning itself into some type of fast food brewery?
No, but they ran into a legal snag that forced the name change.

In 2012, Fate Brewing Company opened in Arizona. In 2013, someone else opened Fate Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado. In legalese, the Fate Arizona is called the “senior user” of the name since they opened first and the Fate Colorado is the “junior user.” Despite being the junior user, Fate Colorado sued Fate Arizona for trademark infringement.

How Is This Allowed?
Easy: Fate Colorado registered the trademark “Fate Brewing Company” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). It’s the Burger King situation all over again.

By doing business first, Fate Arizona had rights to use “Fate Brewing Company” for beer and restaurant services, but since they didn’t register their trademark with the USPTO, their rights only extended to the geographic area where they did business. When Fate Colorado got their registered trademark, they obtained the exclusive right to use “Fate Brewing Company” for beer and restaurant services everywhere in the U.S. except where Fate Arizona had an established market. Likewise, Fate Arizona couldn’t expand its market beyond its established boundaries without infringing Fate Colorado’s rights.

I suspect Fate Colorado sued Fate Arizona for trademark infringement in part because their trademark was granted in 2013 and Fate Arizona South opened in 2015. Fate Colorado could have interpreted the new location as a market expansion that violated their trademark rights.

New Logo for McFate Brewing Company - opening June 25, 2016

New Logo for McFate Brewing Company, Photo courtesy of Fate Brewing Company

What’s Next for Fate Arizona?
Even though Fate Arizona could have made a legal argument that they had the right to use the name as the “senior user,” they have opted to take the high road to rebrand rather than spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on this legal fight. The re-branding party for McFate Brewing Company (named after the owner, Steve McFate) is scheduled for June 25, 2016 according to Fate Arizona’s Facebook page.

I hope Fate Colorado wasn’t a jerk about this process. A company has an obligation to protect its intellectual property or risk losing it, but there is more than one way to pen a cease and desist letter.

How Could Fate Arizona have Avoided This Problem?
Yes. Fate Arizona could have beaten Fate Colorado to the USPTO and filed a trademark application before they did. They could have staked their claim to the name and gained exclusive right to use the name nationwide, shutting down Fate Colorado or forcing them to rebrand from their start.

Many new businesses are more concerned about getting off the ground than federal trademark filings, especially when the business only has aspirations of being a local brand. Unfortunately, this leaves them vulnerable to being boxed in geographically, called into court, or forced to rebrand like it did here.

If you have questions about your company’s trademark or how to select a trademark for your new venture, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Creator Rights | Phoenix Comicon Recap

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon - sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon – sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

I had an awesome time presenting on Creator Rights at Phoenix Comicon this year with Javier Hernandez. His comic book series, El Muerto, was recently made into a movie and a fan created a fan film that was shown at the Con. It was really interesting to hear his story as an artist trying to muddle through the legalities of working in the arts with the help of his lawyer.

I don’t prepare much for my talks at Phoenix Comicon. I feel like it’s my job to be there to explain legal concepts in plain English and answer the audience’s questions about copyright, trademarks, contracts, and fan art. There’s always a fun smart audience with thoughtful questions. It’s a privilege to be invited back multiple times. Here are some of the highlights from this year.

You have Rights in your Original Creations
There is no legal protection for ideas but there is for original works of authorship once you’ve captured your ideas in a tangible medium such as paper or a digital file. The copyright laws were designed to protect original story lines and fully-formulated characters. I often recommend that artists at least register their “story bible” with the U.S. Copyright Office to maximize their legal rights related to their work.

Once you create a comic, you have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, or make derivative works from your original work. That’s why the movie studio had to get the option (aka license) from Javier to make a movie from El Muerto, because a movie is a derivative work. Javier didn’t authorize the creation of the fan film and so when he went to see it, part of his motivation was to see if he wanted to exert his legal rights to stop the creators from showing it in other forums.

Protect your Trademarks
Someone in the audience shared a horrific story. He created a comic and after he started sharing his work with others, someone else started a similar comic – with the same name. Here’s the kicker, the second guy registered the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. What a nightmare. I told him to call a lawyer to try to sort out this mess.

A lot of beginning artists and people who create art as a hobby don’t understand their rights and how they can avoid problems like this by registering their trademark before their competition does. Or if they understand their rights, they don’t invest the money to file the proper applications with the federal government. These types of problems happen all the time. Check out what happened when two restaurants decided to call themselves “Burger King.”

When Contracts are Involved, Call a Lawyer
If you are lucky enough to create art that someone wants to buy or license, call a lawyer. The other side is going to present you with a contract that was written solely based on their interests. You need someone who is equally versed in entertainment contracts to represent you. Lawyers talk to lawyers – so hire someone who can explain the process, understand your priorities, and advise you of your options.

Javier and I had a fantastic time doing this panel – sharing our experiences and knowledge from the creator’s and lawyer’s perspective. It was a wonderful juxtaposition for the audience. I also did a panel at Phoenix Comicon on Fan Art/Fiction and Copyright. If you want to know more about that specific topic, check out this post I wrote last year with a handy mnemonic device.

If you have questions or want to chat more about creator rights, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Clothing Line Intellectual Property

Geek & Graphic T-shirts by nicolas 'nclm' from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Geek & Graphic T-shirts by nicolas ‘nclm’ from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently I’ve had a few questions about intellectual property related to starting the clothing line or T-shirt business. These people asked me how they can protect their work. Is it trademark? Is it copyright? The answer is, it’s probably both!

A trademark is anything you put on your goods or services to differentiate them from the competition. And a business can have several trademarks. They are your company name, brand names, slogans, logos, etc. Likewise, a clothing line can have several trademarks including your company’s name, the name for each collection, slogans, and your logos. The triangle patch with the question mark on it is a trademark for Guess jeans as is the alligator logo for Lacoste brand clothing.

Before you select the trademarks you want for your clothing line, be sure to check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database to verify that the trademark you want has not already been claimed by another company in the apparel industry or a related industry. If a trademark has already been registered that company could stop you from entering the marketplace using a trademark that is confusingly similar to theirs. (See the story of The North Face v. The South Butt for an example.)

Your clothing line may also contain several copyrights. If you design T-shirts, you will have copyright rights in each design. You may also have copyright rights in your logo. You have rights in what you create the moment you create it; you don’t have to register them with the U.S. Copyright Office to obtain your rights (however, you do have to register if you want to sue for copyright infringement.) If your design is simply a short phrase on a shirt, it may not be copyrightable because short phrases are often not original enough to warrant having a copyright. Depending on what your phrase is, if you’re using it as a slogan, it could be a trademark.

If you outsource the creation of the designs for your clothing or the creation of your marketing materials, make sure you have clear written contracts with these independent contractors to ensure that you own whatever you have hired them to create. Otherwise you may find yourself in a situation where the artist owns the intellectual property rights in what they created, and you merely have a license to use it.

As you can see, determining what intellectual property you have may be a complicated question. It’s best to consult an intellectual property attorney to assist you in identifying your intellectual property and determine the best strategies to protect it, which may include registering your copyrights and trademarks.

If you have any questions about copyrights or trademarks, feel free to shoot me an email or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Top Three Legal Tips for Dad Bloggers from Dad 2.0 Summit

Awesome Bo-Gos at the Dad 2.0 Summit 2015

Awesome Bo-Gos at the Dad 2.0 Summit 2015

I had an awesome time at Dad 2.0 Summit – an awesome conference for dads who blog. I was invited to the conference to hang out in the Knowledge Bar during the breaks to talk with people about the legal dos and don’ts when it comes to their blogs. One gentleman asked me what three tips I’d give to the conference’s audience. Here’s what I said.

1. Be Thoughtful about what Images you Use on your Site.
Unfortunately, a lot of people think they can use any image they find online as long as they give an attribution and a link back to the original. What you’re likely doing is committing copyright infringement and telling the artist what you did. I recommend getting permission from the person to use their image or only use Creative Commons images for your site. I only use images that come with the license that lets me modify and commercialize them.  For more information about this topic, check out this post and/or watch this video.

2. Register your Trademarks.
This is my soapbox issue for the year for bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters – register your trademarks! If you don’t, someone else can start using it, register it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and they could essentially shut down your site. You’d have to decide whether to fight them for it or rebrand. It’s easier and cheaper to protect yourself by registering your brand first. Then that way you’ve secured your rights to your name, logo, and slogan everywhere in the U.S. For more information about this topic, check out this post and/or watch this video.

3. When you get Free Products or Write Sponsored Posts, Disclose It.
Federal law requires you to only give true and accurate reviews when you do product reviews and you must disclose when you are compensated for giving your opinion. You have to tell your audience when you get products for free, participate in campaigns for compensation, or have sponsors. This rule applies to blogs, review sites, and anywhere you post on social media when you’re compensated for doing so. For more information about this topic, check out this post.

The laws regarding blogging and social media are still developing so it’s important that you stay abreast of changes as they occur when they apply to you. I will do my best to create content on developments in social media and internet law. If you’re looking for a resource that reviews the laws that apply to bloggers, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. You can always send me an email if you ever have questions, and please stay connected with me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube.

If I don’t see you before then, I look forward to re-connecting with you at Dad 2.0 Summit next year!

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 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 you 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 newsletter. If you want more information about Carter Law Firm, please visit the homepage.