When you get to a certain level in any endeavor, you start running into words like “intellectual property,” and concepts like copyrights and trademarks. Trademarking in particular, is a vaguely ephemeral concept to the layman, and it can be difficult to sort fact from fiction.
If you are considering trademarking, you should first attempt to understand what it entails. That involves answering a few simple questions:
What is a trademark? A trademark is officially defined as a sign or expression that identifies products or services of a particular source form those of others. That, of course, is a pretty thick sentence. So let’s explain it in basic terms:
You know the Starbucks logo? How about the Apple on every Mac, iPad, and iPhone? The MSN butterfly, IBM, the McDonald’s arches, these are all examples of trademarks. They’re an immediate way to identify the source you’re purchasing from. Even slogans, like “That’s powerful,” “Just do it,” or “There’s an app for that,” are trademarked by the companies that created them.
Trademarks are information shortcuts, if you will – a way to create an instant association in the mind of the consumer. Expectations. Some very unusual trademarks have been suggested or registered – Harley Davidson has attempted to trademark the “Harley Sound,” and
As another for example, Google – the word, not the company – is a registered trademark. In fact, it’s the most valuable trademark in the world. Google feared that the word “google” would become a byword for “search,” and it very nearly has. It’s a $44 billion dollar word, if you can believe that.
Do you need a trademark? Well, that depends on how paranoid and protective you are. If your money is tied up in it (and you’re reading this), the answer is probably yes. What you need to think about is what kind of trademark you need.
What kind of trademarks are there? The most basic kinds of registered trademarks (more on registered vs. unregistered below) include:
- Trademark, which we’ve covered. Examples: Hoover, Exxon, Dell
- Service Mark, which indicates the source of a service provider. Examples: Chick-Fil-A, COMPUSA, Power Home Remodeling
- Certification Mark, used to indicate where or how something was manufactured, commonly used by unions. Examples: Energy Star, Asthma and Allergy Friendly, Idaho Potatoes.
- Collective Mark, used by members of co-ops or organizations, such as CPAs or lobbyist groups.
What is the difference between registered and unregistered trademarks? You can use a trademark without federal registration. This is denoted by the little “TM” symbol you see over certain logos or slogans. These are useful because they provide access to certain legal avenues in the event of infringement, but they are not as beneficial as registered trademarks, denoted by the “R” in a circle. Filing a trademark application successfully comes with increased protection. These benefits include:
- Public notice, so that others know you’ve got the mark registered.
- Right to bring action in federal court.
- The use of that mark as a basis to gain international trademarks, and
- Registration with CBP (Customs and Border Protection) in order to stop the importation of goods that infringe on your trademark.
As such, a registered trademark carries more weight. Also, unlike copyrights, registered trademarks do not expire.
About the Author: Michael Newsham is a Philadelphia-based marketing and promotional executive who moonlights as a writer and performer. Follow his less informative – but more entertaining – work at Stark Raving Normal.