Trademark Protection: How to Protect Your Business IPJennifer Peaslee
[content field=”callout1″ format=”true” class=”calloutwide”]If you created an innovative product, unlike any currently on the market, you would most likely go to work securing a patent. But what about the intangible? Have you ever considered the importance of legally securing your intellectual property – words, names, logos or symbols? As it turns out, trademark protection is a growing concern for today’s business owners, and an important step to protect your rights in the case of legal disputes.
Take Payam (Peter) Tabibian for example. Peter was recently featured in a New York Times piece on the issue of trademark protection as he is battling former business partners over the intellectual rights of Z-Burger, a growing fast-food restaurant in the Washington, D.C. area. After a falling out, the ex-partners sued Peter over the rights to use the Z-Burger name and logo.
But luckily Peter had protected himself with a trademark. In 2007, a year before Z-Burger opened, Peter registered for a trademark. The red, white and yellow Z-Burger logo was established as a trademark and upheld in court as Peter’s own intellectual property.
Prevalence of Trademarks and Trademark Legal Issues
If you think Peter’s story is uncommon, you’d, unfortunately, be wrong. Trademark legal issues have a long history in the United States and more and more businesses these days are protecting themselves with a trademark.
In fact, there are thousands of trademarks filed and renewed each year – in 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office received 455,017 applications for trademarks. The website Trademarkia even has a searchable database of over 7 million trademarks that have been filed since 1870. And with trademark filings, there are also come trademark infringement cases from those with trademarks who think another business has overstepped their ground.
The New York Times article that explored the Z-Burger case mentions that there were almost 3,200 trademark cases filed in federal district courts in the U.S. in the year 2013 alone. A search of trademark infringement cases shows that trademark legal disputes can take many forms. Some famous trademark and intellectual property cases include:
- Guess and Gucci fighting over the use of the interlocking G in fashion items.
- Nike and Under Armour battling over the “I Will” advertising slogan.
- Isaac Newton and Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz arguing over who invented calculus.
- Adidas and Payless Shoesource disputing the use of parallel stripes on footwear.
If you think trademark litigation is only for the big guys, you’d be wrong again. Black Bear Micro Roastery, a small New Hampshire coffee producer, found that out when Starbucks brought a trademark infringement case over their blend “Charbucks.” Black Bear Micro Roastery won the case, but the same cannot be said for all small business owners who have been sued for trademark infringement. The term trademark bullying refers to (typically larger) companies that use overly aggressive tactics to enforce their trademarks. Since legal costs are high, many smaller companies do not have the means to challenge and, therefore, fold (rebrand) instead.
Trademark Protection – What Your Business Can Do
Trademark protection takes on two forms – protecting your own business’s identity from others who may try to claim it, as well as protecting yourself from litigation by other companies who are accusing you of stealing their trademark. Some general tips to avoid trademark troubles include:[Tweet “Attention #smb owners: we have a #trademark #protection warning you need to read!”]
1. Do Your Research
Before you solidify the name of your business, it’s important to do research to make sure the name isn’t already trademarked. You can search the trademark database as well as perform your own Google searches to find out if there are other businesses using that name. When searching, make sure to check website domains and social media platforms. Also, remember that two companies CAN have the same name as long as they are selling different products or services. Consider Domino’s pizza and Domino sugar or Delta airlines and Delta faucets, for example.
2. Be Unique
When in doubt, a safe bet is to choose something distinct that is not like other companies out there in your market. Unique names, logos, slogans, and so on make for stronger trademarks.
3. Educate Yourself on Trademarks
Trademark protection and law is quite complex – make sure you know the basics before deciding to apply for a trademark or if you are being challenged. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has produced a great, 42-minute video covering all the basic information you need to understand. You can watch the video here or by clicking the play button below.
4. Apply for a Trademark
If you’ve got a unique business name or logo, you can protect it by applying for a trademark of your own. You can learn about the trademark process here and you can fill out an application online. Instead of doing it yourself, you may also consider hiring an attorney to help. Once you are granted a trademark, make sure you follow the steps to maintain it.
5. Monitor Your Trademark
To protect your trademark, you can hire a watch service to spot copycats. These trained professionals can help you find other businesses who have violated your trademark, but a monthly check can also help you spot new registrations and stop them during the 30-day ‘opposition’ window. If you decide not to hire out, you can still conduct periodic trademark searches and also use tools like Google Alerts.
6. Assess the Situation
There is not one right method for proceeding if you are accused of (or are accusing someone of) trademark infringement. The legal process is expensive and some businesses cannot afford it. Other avenues involve coming to some sort of agreement with the accusing party or simply rebranding with a new name or logo. Before choosing your path, make sure to assess the situation. This checklist can help you determine if you are indeed violating the trademark, and you should also consult a lawyer specializing in trademarks and intellectual property to determine the best course of action.
Trademark protection is a tricky area so it’s wise to have a lawyer on your side during the trademark process, or before you end up in a trademark legal battle. In the competitive business environment that we live, protecting your intellectual property is important for any business, big or small.