10 Things you need to know about trademarking a logo

Guest Blogger

You’ve designed a logo to represent your business. Before sending that logo out into the world, you should consider how to protect the design, and the business behind it, through correct use of trademark law. The transition from concept to operation, from design to brand, is a crucial one. We answer the top ten questions about trademarking a logo:

1. What is a trademark?

red nike shoe
via Nike

 

What the heck is a trademark, anyway? Like the word itself says, a trademark is a mark of trade. In other words, it’s a word, slogan, image, logo or some combination used to connect products with the maker of those products. A trademark can take many shapes, as long as the mark is distinctive. The public should recognize the trademark as an identifier of the product‘s source. A classic example of a trademark is the Nike swoosh symbol. When you see that mark on a pair of sneakers you instantly recognize those shoes as a Nike product.

2. What does a trademark protect?

adidas sama shoe
via Adidas

The purpose of a trademark is to protect your business’s brand identity in the marketplace. To use another shoe company as an example, the Adidas trademark of three white stripes lets people know that the shoes they’re about to buy were designed and made by the Adidas company. If a company begins selling shoes with two white stripes, people could easily think those shoes also are Adidas shoes. Not only does Adidas lose money from the lost sale, but they also lose consumer confidence, if the similar looking shoes are inferior in quality. The law says that your trademark is infringed upon when another company’s brand elements are similar enough to confuse consumers. Infringing companies must stop using the similar trademark.

3. Who owns the logo trademark?

Trademark ownership comes from actually using the trademark for products in commerce. The logo designer usually isn’t the trademark owner. The business owner who uses the trademark properly owns the trademark.

Mc Donald's packaging
via McDonald’s

4. When does a logo become a trademark?

Your logo becomes a trademark when it appears on labels, packaging or the product itself and the public recognizes the company behind that particular combination of colors and shapes. Imagine you see a sign with golden arches; you probably are picturing a Happy Meal (also trademarked) or similar fast food item at a McDonald’s restaurant.

US patent and Trademark office
via Jones Robb

5. What do you gain by registering your logo as a trademark?

In the United States, trademark rights begin when the trademark is put into commercial use. That means as soon as you begin advertising your product with your logo, your logo is technically trademarked in the eyes of the law. But these automatic, common law trademark rights are geographically limited and difficult to enforce. So even though you don’t have to go to the trouble of officially registering your trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, you might want to since only registered trademarks:

  • Are protected under the federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (yes, “anticybersquatting” actually is a word). This allows trademark owners to sue domain name registrants using identical or confusingly similar trademarks, like Microsoft versus MikeRoweSoft.com.
  • Can ask the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to automatically confiscate counterfeit and infringing imported goods.
  • Qualify you to get trademark protection in other countries.
  • Allow you to bring an infringement lawsuit in federal instead of state court.
  • Award trademark owners presumptive ownership on a national level. That’s a fancy way of saying you are recognized as the owner of that trademark in the entire United States.

6. Does your logo qualify for registration?

apple corps vs Apple
via Apple Corps and Apple

Though the Patent Office approves hundreds of thousands of trademark applications annually, not all trademarks are eligible for registration. Trademarks cannot be offensive or misleading, for example. Applications for trademarks that are too similar to existing ones will be denied unless the products are completely unrelated, as in the case of Apple Computers and Apple Corps, a record company owned by The Beatles. Marks that sound alike, mean the same or are visually similar to each other are likely to cause confusion among consumers and won’t be registered.

7. When can a trademark be registered?

You should begin the process of trademarking a logo as soon as possible, submitting an intent-to-use application even before your business or product launches. The trademark won’t officially be registered until the Patent Office completes its review and approval of an application.

8. What are the strongest trademarks?

The point of a trademark is to distinguish your thingamajig from the other guy’s. Therefore the trademark must be distinctive. Trademarks are classified along a spectrum from weak to strong, with the strongest being the most easily protected by law because they are distinct in the minds of the public and are readily distinguishable in the market. The strongest marks tend to be fanciful or arbitrary. Invented words, like Zynga, and words with no association with the protected goods, such as Apple, are stronger than marks that are merely suggestive or descriptive. Generic words or logos can’t be trademarked. For example, if you open a pizza restaurant and name it The Pizza Place, you’ll probably have a harder time trademarking your name than if you name it Tricycle Pizza.

generic pizza logo vs unique pizza logo
Left: design by Emanuela Grasso, Right: design by maestro_medak

9. Why wouldn’t you register your logo as a trademark?

There are many reasons why you might choose not to pursue trademark registration, depending on your current and anticipated circumstances:

  • You’re not sure how long your business will last. Applying for trademark registration is time-intensive, averaging about 10 months to complete the process. The application is expensive, too, with a minimum filing fee of $325 if you prepare and submit the most basic application without legal counsel.
  • Your logo might change in a couple of years. Only the exact version that is registered is legally protected, and you could actually weaken the registered trademark’s rights by using variations. Also registered logo trademarks must continue to be used in order to retain their rights. If you don’t plan to continue using your logo then there might not be a reason to register.
  • Your logo can’t be registered because it is similar to another already in existence somewhere else in the country. As long as you stick to your geographic area, then state registration or common law probably provides enough protection.
logo trademark symbol

10. How do you use those trademark symbols?

You can use the ® symbol only for registered trademarks. Though you aren’t required to use the trademark symbols of ™ or ®, doing so signifies that someone claims ownership of the mark, which could make other businesses think twice about “borrowing” part of your brand. You also aren’t required to use the symbols with every appearance of your trademark, since they can clutter the visual space and aren’t legally necessary.

Insert the symbols into text:

  • When typing on a Windows computer, use the keyboard combination of pressing the [Alt] key followed by the keypad number sequence of “0153” to insert the TM symbol or “0174” to insert the registered trademark symbol.
  • Insert either symbol by selecting it from the character map available in your software program.
  • On Apple operating systems, hold the [Option] and “2” keys for the trademark sign, and hold [Option] and “R” at the same time to produce the registered trademark symbol.

About the author: Melissa Jenkins spends much of her time working to make complex concepts more accessible and understandable. She researches and writes across a broad variety of topics, specializing in the overlap and connections between fields, issues related to health care management and legal matters.

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99designs loves to share design how-to's directly from design professionals themselves. Reach out to share your thoughts, ask questions, or thank these experts for their awe-inspiring tips!

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