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Trademarks

Learn the basics about how to secure your trademarks and symbols.

What is a trademark?

A trademark is any word, phrase, symbol or design, or combination of these things used to identify and distinguish your goods from those manufactured or sold by others. Trademarks also apply to sayings or slogans such as Nike's® "Just Do It"®, and configurations such as book package designs. Trademarks also encompass tradenames (the trademark for a corporate entity) and a service mark (used for services rather than products). 

How to secure a trademark

You are not required to register a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in order to be protected because trademark protection automatically commences when you begin using your trademark. However, registration is advisable because it provides procedural advantages if you need to sue someone for infringement.

To protect your name, symbol, device, etc. during the time you are waiting for your trademark to become official, you can file an "intent to use" application with the trademark and patent office. This application will protect you from the date you file it, as long as you eventually register your trademark. The intent to use application is helpful if you expect a long time period between when you choose a trademark and actually begin using it.

The time necessary to obtain a trademark can vary, but expect it to take at least one year.

Trademark lifespan

Once you have a trademark, it lasts as long as the owner of the mark continues to use it; however, the registration for the trademark must be renewed every 10 years. In addition, in the first 10–year period in which you have a trademark, between the fifth and sixth year after the date of initial registration, you must file an affidavit with the patent and trademark office setting forth certain information to keep the registration alive. If no affidavit is filed, the registration is canceled. Trademarks are usually passed on in wills, or carried on through a corporate entity.

You can check to see if a trademark is currently in use by looking in the Thomson & Thomson's Trademark Scan, by accessing the same database through Westlaw — a law–related online service, or on Knight–Ridder's Dialogue Information Service — an online service that provides direct online access to databases including Trademark Scan. Thomson & Thomson can be reached directly at 800–692–8833. Some librarians can also do a trademark scan for you for a fee, or you can do your own search in the Directory of U.S. Trademarks in the library.

State trademarks

State trademark registration is easier and cheaper, but only provides you with protection in that state. The benefit of such a trademark is that in states with strong laws that prohibit trademark counterfeiting, trademark owners can bring state action for infringements.

Resources

For trademark information and applications call 703–786–9199 or write to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Washington DC 20231. To have questions answered call 701–308–HELP.

The previous content is provided by OPEN: The Small Business NetworkSM from American Express.


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