Trademark Law



According to the United Kingdom government, the first trademark legislation was in the late nineteen century. In the United States, the first federal trademark legislation was enacted in 1870.

The Purpose of Trademark Law

The trademark act, or "Lanham Act", 18 USC Sec. 1051 etc. , is meant to allow consumers to correctly identify the sources of goods or services.

For example, when we buy a pair of Nike shoes, we want to know that Nike made them and they are of the quality and come with the guarantees that Nike, as a company, offers consumers. Trademark law allows Nike to stop other companies who might make cheap shoes and copy the Nike logo on it from doing so. Allowing a third party to use the Nike mark on its products, would (a) allow it to easily sell products by taking advantage of the money which Nike has spent on advertising, brand development, warranties and customer service, and other techniques to develop goodwill and loyal customers; (b) allow it to offer its products at lower cost than Nike due to lower overhead; and (c) injure Nike because the consumer will associate bad performance of the products with Nike or will try to return products never sold by Nike to Nike and will be angered if Nike refuses to take such products back.

When considering if there is "trademark infringement", the main question a court considers is whether the average consumer would be confused as to the source of the good or service.

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is either a word, phrase, symbol or design, or combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, which identifies and distinguishes the source of particular goods or services. A service mark is the same as a trademark except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product.

Normally, a mark for goods appears on the product or on its packaging, while a service mark appears in advertising for the services. A "tm" on a product indicates unregistered trademark rights and an "®" indicates a registered mark. It is illegal to place an "®" on a mark that does not have national registration.

Marks fall into several categories: arbitrary or fanciful, suggestive, or descriptive.

a. Arbitrary and Fanciful Marks: the marks most easily registered are those which are arbitrary or fanciful. These marks are those that have no obvious association with a particular good or service and/or are made up. Yahoo is a perfect example of an fanciful mark. Blue Diamond Almonds is an example of an arbitrary mark.

b. Suggestive Marks: marks which are next most easily registered are suggestive. These marks require the consumer to give some thought to understand the association. Greyhound Buses is an example. A consumer must think about the characteristics of a greyhound, fast, sleek and associate them with the bus service.

c. Descriptive Marks: marks which describe a product or service, describe a product or service through use of a Surname (Smith's plumbing), or describe a product or service through use of a geographical word (Napa Valley Chardonnay), may be difficult to register. When a mark is truly "descriptive", as opposed to "suggestive" is often subjective and depends on the USPTO examining attorney and how well your attorney can argue your application. The idea behind denial of registration is that applicants which are merely describing products should not be able to monopolize use of the words necessary to do so since the general public and their competitors also need to be able to describe products and services without concerns about trademark infringement. The USPTO will grant the mark if a company can prove that consumers identify of a product or service with a source through a descriptive mark.

Trademarks are generally not granted in generic words, phrases, symbols or designs; immoral or scandalous words, phrases, symbols or designs; false, misleading or mis-descriptive words, phrases, symbols or designs; or surnames.

When Do You Get a Trademark and What's Required to Get a Trademark?
You may apply for registration of a trade mark or service mark after you use a mark to identify a product sold or service performed "in commerce" -- or for advertising and/or sale to customers. You may also register your company's intention to use a mark prior to its actual use and then have up to six months to file the actual application with a sample of its actual use.

You are not required to obtain national register of a trade or service mark. Trademark rights arise upon use in commerce. However, national registration expands and protects your trademark rights, giving your company a presumption of first use of the mark in association with particular goods or services.

When you formally apply for national registration of a mark, you must submit an application, drawing of the mark if graphic, and sample of the mark as you have actually used it to identify your company's product or service. Obtaining full registration of a mark usually takes up to several years due to the slow response rate of the USPTO which generally responds to correspondence once every six months. It is best to have an attorney handle the USPTO filing of the application and correspondence with the USPTO since the correspondence usually uses highly legal jargon and cases citing with regard to analyses and argument about the application.

Trademark Searches

Since trade and service mark rights are based on actual use in commerce and priority based on time and geography, not everyone registers marks since it is not required. This means that when you apply for a trademark, you may wish to get a "trademark search". A thorough trademark search includes phone books, newspapers, the internet, state company trade name registrations, the USPTO and other sources and the typical price is about $750. The results of such a search are several hundred pages of analyses of similar words and/or graphic representations of the marks from the US including many that may not be registered but may have prior rights in the marks.

A mark search is not a requirement of registration but if you choose to apply without one, you are taking two risks (1) the USPTO may reject your mark due to pending applications not yet updated in the USPTO database or because of the USPTO's own national search for the mark; and (2) even if your company obtains permission for proceeding with the application from the USPTO, another party may claim prior use of the mark during the application process (called "opposition") or after you receive registration and contest your rights to use the mark due to their prior use. Therefore, if you intend to invest large sums of money in brands recognition, corresponding domain name or company name recognition, a full search rather than a lesser search is the smart choice. Alternatively, if you are not particularly attached to the name of your company, are willing to change it in the future if necessary and want to take the risk by saving money early on, skipping a search may be more in line with your business goals.

What Do You Have When You Have a Trademark?

Having a trademark may allow to you to prevent others from using the same or similar mark with similar products or services by giving you a presumption of first national use of the mark in the US. To explain it another way, a mark allows a company to ensure their customers know which products and services are made by them through use of a word, phrase, symbol or design -- their trademark. If another company uses your mark to sell similar products or services, you may bring a trademark infringement claim against such company to stop their use. These cases are usually decided on priority of use, geographical use and consumer confusion with regard to the source of the mark. Trademark rights are indefinite as long as use of the product or performance of the service in commerce continues, your company makes attempts to control use of the mark by others, and the trademark is renewed every ten years.

Domain Names

Having trademark rights is also important with regard to current law and domain names. Presently, the USPTO will not register a domain name that does not merit trade or service mark rights under traditional analysis. The name by itself is considered merely an address. Thus, it is very important to be sure to use your domain name as a trade or service mark in order to ensure retention of the domain name. Under current law, trademark owners may be granted ownership of their trademarks through arbitration or court if a party without trade mark or other rights is using their mark -- in other words, trade mark holders can take domain names which utilize their marks from registrants.


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