A business trademark protects your company’s identity — without it, you run the risk of competitors using your business name, slogan or logo. This can tarnish your brand, confuse customers, and potentially lead to legal trouble and monetary losses. Here’s what you need to know about registering a trademark for your business.
To register a trademark in the U.S., you must file an application with the United States Patent Trademark Office (USPTO), the federal agency that governs the enforceability of trademark protection. Although you can legally register a trademark with the USPTO on your own, it is best to seek the assistance of a trademark attorney. Trained professionals can simplify the process and ensure your application is accurate. Missteps in the application process can cost you time and money.
Before you file an application, you need to gather pertinent business information. This information includes the mark you want protected, its owner, and the category of goods or services associated with it. You’ll also need to identify when you started or intend to start using the mark, according to Travis Crabtree, co-founder and general counsel of Swyft Filings.
You need to understand the different marks and applications that each component is registered under so you do not file incorrectly. For example, company names and slogans are registered as word marks, whereas company logos are registered as design marks.
“If you are applying for protection for the name of your business, your slogan and the company logo, then you would be applying for three separate applications: two-word mark applications and one design mark application,” said Kelly DuFord Williams, the founder of Slate Law Group.
Before you fill out a trademark application, prepare to provide the following documentation:
To trademark your business name or logo, file an application with the USPTO. To complete the form, you need to provide information such as your goods and services list, the exact design or style of your logo, and details about your business.
A trademark, as defined by the USPTO, “can be any word, phrase, symbol, design or a combination of these things that identifies your goods or services.” A service mark technically differs from a trademark in that it protects services rather than goods; however, the USPTO says the term “trademark” is often used in a general sense to refer to both trademarks and service marks.
“A trademark registration protects the trademark holder’s rights to use the mark to identify its goods and/or services, and to prevent another company from using the same mark for the same class of goods and/or services,” said Nancy A. Del Pizzo, a partner at Rivkin Radler. “Registered trademarks can be powerful tools toward developing customer goodwill and adding value to a product or service covered by the mark.”
DuFord said there are multiple reasons for a business to register its trademark. For example, you might have valuable intellectual property that you want to protect so you can profit through licensing, or you may need to register a trademark in order to verify your business on retail platforms such as Amazon.
“Whatever the reason may be, trademarking is an asset, a piece of intellectual property that can potentially set your business apart in a time of market oversaturation,” DuFord said. “Trademarks are very detailed and time-consuming but necessary.”
Although registering a business trademark can be costly, it is well worth the expense. Unlike a copyright or a patent, a trademark does not expire after a set period of time. Instead, business trademarks can be continuously renewed in 10-year increments. However, you must adhere to certain stipulations to keep your trademark active, and your domestic trademark only protects you in the U.S.
It is not mandatory for businesses to register their trademark. Your company can establish common law rights to a mark based solely on the use of it. However, registering your mark has many advantages — and the biggest is exclusive legal rights. Having legal usage rights over your marks helps maintain your brand identity and protects it from being copied.
Del Pizzo said it is important to understand that the name of a business is not necessarily a trademark and may not be registerable as one. “Registering a business name with a state entity to do business in that state is not the same as registering a trademark with the USPTO to obtain federal trademark rights.”
Companies should register business trademarks as soon as possible to avoid complications and monetary damages later on. Del Pizzo said that some small businesses have made the mistake of investing time and money in branding and marketing, only to later find out that another company has federal trademark rights that bar their use.
Additionally, businesses that invest money in a brand before speaking with an attorney about trademark rights run the risk of trying to trademark a name that is simply not trademarkable. Generic names (e.g., Best Donuts) and descriptive names (e.g., Yellow Legal Pads) are not likely to receive protection, said Crabtree.
“Fanciful or arbitrary names that really don’t have much to do with the product (e.g., Google or Uber) have an easier time getting registered,” he said. “This dichotomy builds an automatic tension when starting a new brand. You want a name that can be protected and won’t be imitated, but you also want the public to have some idea what you are selling when they see your name or logo.”
Crabtree added that if you have a product or service that people want, it won’t take long for others to copy you. The process of registering a trademark could take as little as a few months, or it could last more than a year — hence the importance of starting the application process as soon as possible.
You should try to trademark your company name and logo as soon as possible to ensure they aren’t already in use and to secure legal rights to them.
The Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) gives you two ways to file — TEAS Plus and TEAS Standard. Each has its own benefits and limitations. If you work with an attorney, they may have a preferred application that they file under; otherwise, it’s up to you to decide which one suits you best.
After you file your application, the USPTO takes four to six months for the initial review.
“The USPTO will either issue an office action, which means they have an issue or question about the application, or they will move it to the next steps,” said Crabtree.
The cost of registering a trademark depends on several factors. First, you need to determine if you are going to partner with an attorney, which is highly advised. Attorney fees vary; the pricing we found ranged from $750 to $3,000.
Next, you will have to decide which application you are using (TEAS Plus or TEAS Standard), the number of classes you are applying in and the use designation you are declaring.
When filing either of these applications, fill it out completely and accurately. If you fail to meet the TEAS Plus or TEAS Standard requirements, the USPTO will require you to pay an additional application processing fee for each class of goods or services. TEAS Plus applications will also be handled as TEAS Standard applications.
DuFord said there could be additional filing fees depending on the use designation. “If you declare that you are already using the mark and can provide evidence of it in use, then you can avoid one less filing fee. However, additional filing fees can add to the price of a TM application if you have to declare an ‘intent to use’ and later file a declaration of use. This price can accrue even more if the applicant is not ready to show evidence of it in use at the appropriate time and has to file an extension, all of which adds more to the price of the USPTO filing fees.”
Jason VanDevere, owner of GoalCrazy Planners, said there is a potential money-saving method for small businesses and startups to receive legal advice throughout the trademark registration process. VanDevere found a program through his local college, the University of Akron, that could file his business trademark for him for free.
“It turns out that many law schools have programs where the students will help small businesses create and file legal documents for free,” he said. “The students will prepare the work and then the professor, who is a licensed lawyer, will check everything over and file it. Using this program, the only out-of-pocket expense I had was the federal filing fee of about $200, rather than the potential thousands I would have had to pay a lawyer.”
Although not every law school offers this service, it is worth checking if you could save on legal fees. Regardless of the route you take to register your business trademark, though, you should register as soon as possible.
If you can’t afford an attorney, see if your local college or university offers free trademark registration or legal assistance for small businesses.
Though there are several steps involved in registering for a business trademark, the process is fairly straightforward. Starting the paperwork sooner rather than later can help ensure you get important rights to your business’s name and logo. This way, your company is uniquely yours, and your customers can easily identify your business. It’s the most reliable way to make your name official.
Shayna Waltower and Skye Schooley contributed to this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.