A trademark can be one of the most valuable tools a business has. The right trademark strengthens brand recognition while preventing competitors from profiting off your intellectual properties (IP).
Many budding entrepreneurs put off registering a trademark since it isn't mandatory to get a business running. Although, any company that plans to grow past local audiences should reap the benefits by applying as soon as possible.
What is a Trademark?
A trademark is "a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of the others."
Trademarked assets are everywhere. They're how consumers recognize and build trust with a brand. Many trademarks are so famous that our brains make instantaneous connections from a passing logo.
Highway signs don't say "McDonald's on Exit 45." No, all drivers need to see is the iconic yellow M, and they'll instinctively know where to get a Big Mac. Trademarks are brand power.
Anything can be a trademark, including specific colors. Tiffany & Co worked for nearly a century to trademark and associate with a shade of blue called "1837 Blue."
Creating a trademark also prevents other businesses from pilfering goods and services. However, this protection only covers the specific trademark class it's filed under.
What is a Trademark Class?
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) divides products into 45 classes. Trademarked goods or services are protected only under their unique class.
A product's class can also change depending on the type of business and how it's sold. Tea bags in a grocery store would be protected under Class 30 (Staple Food Products), but selling them in a café would also add on Class 43 (Food Services).
Since applications are only available for one trademark class at a time, businesses that need multiple classes will see significantly higher fees.
Why is it Important to Trademark a Business Name?
It seems obsessive for Tiffany & Co to spend years going after a hyper-specific color like 1837 Blue. But it's not. The value of a trademark increases the more distinct it is from the competition. If two trademarks are overly similar, consumers will more often associate them with the wrong business.
This extends to names as well. Another business can simply leverage a rival's reputation by having a comparable name, such as replacing "Truck Cleaners" with "Truck Washers."
Business names and brands are so interconnected that they're largely considered the same thing. However, a business name is just another way to identify the idea of a brand.
For example, "Apple" is an identifier for the brand of "the company that manufactures the most trusted mobile phones in America." The Apple name has value because it's synonymous with that brand value. If Apple wasn't trademarked, other companies could use the name and benefit from its reputation.
Registering for a trademarked name allows businesses to file a federal trademark infringement suit against competitors attempting to profit from their brand.
Do All Businesses Need a Trademark?
No, not all names need the protection of a trademark. There are common laws protecting the local use of a business name so long as they were the first to use it.
If the business is only selling products or services in a confined region—like handmade jewelry or homemade baked goods—then it's unlikely that a competitor will try to use the same name.
The relatively high cost of trademarking makes it unreasonable for small businesses like these to go through.
How Much Does a Trademark Application Cost?
The baseline application fee for trademarking varies depending on the level of convenience the applicant wants. The Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) has tiers to choose from. The below prices are all per trademark class.
- TEAS Plus - $225
- TEAS RF - $275
- TEAS Regular - $400
TEAS Plus limits the available trademark classes to the USPTO's premade list and strictly communicates through email and online chat. Applicants can expect sparse updates about their application status in this option.
TEAS RF tier is nearly identical to Plus, besides being able to request a custom trademark class outside of the USPTO's list. This option is for niche cases, as most goods and services will fit the existing options.
TEAS Regular tier is noticeably more expensive than the others. USPTO lawyers send letter updates to business owners concerning their trademarks. This prevents any problems from causing long-term delays or outright disqualifying the application.
NOTE: All TEAS application fees are non-refundable even if the application gets denied.
How to Trademark a Business Name
While the trademarking process starts online, it still takes up to half a year to complete. This lengthy turnaround time makes starting early, especially if applying for multiple trademark classes, essential.
Search Existing Trademarks
Any trademarks that are too similar to already registered ones are quick rejections. This is hard to swallow after months of waiting and hundreds of dollars spent.
Conduct a thorough asset search for the business name in the USPTO's Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) beforehand. While there may not be an exact match in the database, even mild similarities can bog down the approval process.
Taylor Swift is an excellent example of a thorough applicant. The pop singer owns over 45 trademarks, with many variations on her name, including Taylor Swift, TSwift, and TS.
Preparing and Filing the Application
The trademark forms are straightforward and primarily descriptive. All of the USPTO's application forms can be found on their official website.
After filling out the personal information (Name, address, etc.), the form asks for two things.
- The business name you want to trademark.
- A description of the good or service the trademark protects.
If filing under TEAS Plus, the patent office already has a description for each trademark class. For example, Class 28 (Toys and Sporting Goods Products) reads as:
"Games and playthings; gymnastic and sporting articles not included in other classes; decorations for Christmas trees."
If filing under TEAS RF or Regular, businesses must create their own description. It's advisable to model custom descriptions on the existing classes.
The Limitations of a Trademark
The USPTO isn't a hired hand that will beat away a business' competition. Registering a business name gives the trademark owner the right to take legal action. Large companies devote entire teams to finding trademark infringers, but small businesses don't have this option.
Most trademark lawsuits come from corporate titans, and trademarking is a way for smaller operations to defend themselves.
Additionally, the USPTO only covers trademarks from other American businesses. A company that uses a similar name in Canada won't be protected.
The trademark process can be time-consuming and confusing. The good news is there are resources to help you through the process and make it as easy as possible to get your business name trademarked. Trademarking a business name is one of the most critical steps in protecting brand identity. Taking care of the process early will prevent legal troubles when your business chooses to expand past the starting line.