Brand recognition is a critical component for the success of any startup, particularly in the technology sector. You want customers to recognize and remember you through a distinctive brand, including creative wording and compelling visual elements. But it’s also important to protect that brand through trademark registration.
Trademarking is not a legal requirement, but it’s certainly a necessity. Obtaining a trademark registration is the best way to safeguard your brand and identity from infringement, whether intentional or accidental. That helps to avoid confusion for your customers — particularly in the rapidly evolving tech industry — and potential damage from other companies.
Some of your competitors won’t be shy about pushing the boundaries to gain an edge in the marketplace. That includes creating names, logos, or other types of intellectual property that are similar to yours. A registered trademark is your strongest line of legal defense against infringement and any potential damages.
Let’s look at what you need to know about trademarks, along with their importance in protecting your brand identity as you grow.
Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents
It can be easy to confuse a trademark with a copyright or patent. All three protect intellectual property, but they vary greatly in their application:
Definitions: Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents
- A trademark typically protects names, phrases, symbols, logos, or designs that distinguish your goods and services from others in the marketplace. Those are the bedrock of your brand.
- Copyright applies to artistic, literary or creative works, such as content on your website, a case study, or a promotional video.
- Patents apply to inventions and innovations, such as software, hardware, or mechanical devices.
Once you understand which intellectual property requires a trademark, you’re ready to make sure you’re protected.
Advantages of Trademark Registration
A trademark is registered publicly through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. While your application is pending (it can take eight or more months for the USPTO to review an application), you have the right to use the (TM) symbol in a superscript format next to your name, logo, or slogan, like this™. Once you receive the registration certificate from the USPTO, you can then use the (R) and take full advantage of federal trademark protection, like so®.
Your federally registered trademark gives you the exclusive right to use your mark in connection with your goods and services. It also allows you to legally enforce your trademark in federal court, rather than state court. Best of all, it’s a forceful way to discourage infringement by a third party before it even starts.
A valid U.S. trademark also can make it easier for you to obtain the same trademark in other countries where you do business, and to fight against counterfeit products.
Filing for a Trademark
Anyone can file for a trademark online at uspto.gov. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is also the best resource to check for similar trademarks and avoid potential infringement when you are considering a new trademark.
The Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) is where you can begin the initial filing process.
The Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) is a database that lets you check if the trademark (or something similar) is already in use.
Trademark Status and Document Retrieval (TSDR) lets you check your application status, as well as view or download any additional documents.
The process isn’t free or easy, however. There are various fees, deadlines, and maintenance requirements throughout the filing and approval process and after the trademark is fully registered. Failure to follow those deadlines could create an issue with approval, or result in accidentally abandoning the trademark.
Also, it may take several months for your registration to be processed, and there’s no guarantee that the USPTO will approve your trademark. They may have an issue with some aspect of your application, and you may not know until late in the process.
Deciding on a Trademark
For tech companies that are constantly introducing new products and services, it’s important to do some research before starting the filing process. In the same way your trademarks are protected, others have similar claims that will affect how you decide on a trademark.
Here are some things to consider when you’re trying to decide on a new trademark:
Tips for Deciding on a Trademark
- Try to think of a distinctive name, or even a made-up name. Examples include Kleenex, Krazy Glue, or Keurig. Unique names are less likely to run into infringement issues.
- Avoid generic names that include words like Classic, Best, or Superior; common terms like Black Diamond, Easy Reach, or Clean Slate; or buzzwords or industry jargon that are likely to change or lose popularity over time.
- Pay attention to trademarks used by your competitors, and shy away from anything that could be construed as an infringement. If an idea seems or sounds too similar, find another avenue.
Your trademark gives you extensive protection, but it typically only covers usage for goods and services that are related to your industry. For example, Apple’s familiar name would be protected in the technology sector, but a nationwide chain of “Big Apple Sandwich Shops” would not likely be seen as infringement.
Caveat Emptor (or: Buyer Beware)
However, the downside of the trademark process is that neither time nor money are refundable. That’s an important consideration for a startup that needs to wisely allocate its resources. Filling for a trademark can result in hours of effort, months of waiting, and thousands of dollars in filing fees — all for a result that’s not guaranteed.
While it’s possible to navigate almost any legal situation on your own, experience can make a huge difference. Consider contacting an attorney who specializes in trademark and intellectual property. They know the potential pitfalls, the keys to successful registration, and how to maintain your registered trademark once it is established.
Whichever path you choose, registering and maintaining your trademarks provides protection for your business, consistency for your customers, and added value and recognition as your business grows.