Why Register a Trademark?

If you own and operate a small business in one of our lake communities, you know the importance of name recognition. A unique business name and logo can help a business stand out and get noticed by potential customers. Picture the logo for Sea Ray boats – it looks like a stylized silver wave and makes it easy to spot a boat made by Sea Ray vs. another boat manufacturer.

Businesses also develop unique slogans and taglines to draw customers in and convey information about what makes their business unique. Target Corporation uses the slogan ‘Expect More. Pay Less’ for example. The intent is to connect a positive idea with shopping at Target, of course.

A business – big or small — that has a unique logo or phrase should consider registering it as a trademark or service mark. This goes for non-profit organizations, too.

A trademark is a word, phrase, graphic or design or a combination of one or more of these things that identifies the specific products and services that a company sells. A trademark distinguishes one company’s products and services from those of other companies. A trademark would be applied to the packaging or actual product, and in the case of the Sea Ray logo, to the side of a boat.

A service mark is very similar to a trademark. A service mark is also a word, phrase, graphic, or design or a combination of one or more of these things that identifies a company that provides services. Delta Airlines has ‘Sky Priority ®’ check in services, for example. A service mark is used in advertising, websites, signs, and marketing materials and prompts us to think of the company itself. Target’s slogan is prominently displayed on signs throughout its stores.

The distinction between a trademark and service mark is somewhat academic, and for the purposes of this article, I’ll generally refer to both types of marks as trademarks.

Protecting your trademark is important. If you have developed a unique company name, logo, or tag line, and it’s become a valuable asset of your business, then it’s a good idea to take steps to protect it. By using the trademark, you are creating rights to its use and can stop others from using your trademark (as long as you can prove that you used it first). You can also further protect your trademark by registering it at the state level or the federal level.

Trademarks are registered in Minnesota with the Secretary of State. The application must be mailed in, and you are required to submit examples of your trademark used in commerce. The application includes the date on which you began using the mark, a written description of the mark itself, how it is used in commerce, and also a classification number. There are 45 classes of products and services; for example, Class 2 is for Paints and related products. You must pick one classification for your registration. You can register your mark in more than one class, but this requires a separate application to the Secretary of State.

Registering a trademark at the federal level requires an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The requirements of a federal application are similar to a state application, and it can take up to six months to complete the process.

Whether you register your trademark at the state level or federal level depends on the geographic area in which you conduct business. If you operate a store or restaurant in Crosslake, a state registration would likely suffice. If you operate a growing online retail site with customers throughout the country, then you should consider a federal trademark registration.

Prior to a state or federal registration, it’s also very important to make sure your trademark is in fact unique and not already used by another business or organization. A trademark search should be conducted by an attorney or national search firm prior to registration. A successful trademark registration may mean that another company has not registered the same mark, but it doesn’t mean you have exclusive rights to use it.

Trademark law can be a complicated and somewhat confusing area of the law, so it’s important to work with an attorney or advisor with experience completing trademark registrations.

Any requests for topic suggestions may be sent to rene@breenandperson.com. Although we cannot give you legal advice through the column, we can provide some general information that may be helpful for you to know. Our purpose is to educate and we hope that you can take something new away from this column each time you read it.