New Year's Resolution # 1: Trademark Your Logo

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MGM's lion. Nike's Swoosh. Target's Bullseye. These logos are more than images. They give companies instant recognition with buyers and represent an organization's individuality. Logos for well-known companies can be identified at a glance and have tremendous marketing power. That's why companies invest big bucks in finding top-notch designs. And simplicity is the name of the game in today's competitive logo world. Ornate details get lost in today's one-glance environment.

So, even if you're starting small, you don't know where your company will go - or grow. After all, Wal-Mart began in 1962 with a single five and dime store and is now the world's largest corporation. In other words, you want to consider the future now. Think from the ground up and start by creating a unique and recognizable logo.

But you also want to keep yourself safe on both sides of the logo process. That means (a.) protecting your logo and (b.) making sure you're not using someone else's logo.

The best way to safeguard your logo? Trademark it. Trademarks protect words, names, symbols, sounds and colors and distinguish one company's goods and products from another. Trademarking a logo not only protects it from being used by other similar companies, it also protects a company from unknowingly infringing upon an existing logo.

Why Trademark a Logo?

Registering your mark gives you legal protection and lets the public know you own the mark. In fact, the mark ¨ can only be used after the logo is actually registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

There are two types of marks you can register with the USPTO (1.) trademarks, which identify goods or products and (2.) service marks, which are used exclusively to identify services.

If you do not officially register your logo with the USTPO, you can still use it. That's because using a logo creates a "common law" trademark. Common law trademarks use either the "TM" (trademark) or "SM" (service mark) symbol to inform businesses that you own your logo. However, common law trademarks offer limited protection. To protect yourself nationally, it is best to register for a federal trademark. And in case of a lawsuit, your trademark registration provides a documented start date for your use of the mark.

A Trademark Search for Your Logo

Before registering a trademark for your logo, it's best to do a trademark search. This will determine if your logo is truly unique. You can perform a trademark search on the USTPO website at www.uspto.gov to determine if your logo is already in use by someone else. Attorneys and professional search companies, like LegalZoom, can also conduct more comprehensive searches.

Keep in mind that a search is not required. However, if the logo you want to trademark is found to be too similar to one already in existence, your application will be denied. Government filing fees are not refunded.

How to Trademark a Logo

Trademarks are classified by a business' particular goods and services. You must complete the appropriate application. The USPTO then reviews trademark applications for federal registration.

If you are interested in trademarking your logo, company name and domain name, each one must be trademarked separately. Even if your business name is part of your logo, the two must be registered individually.

It takes between 10 and 16 months to secure trademark registration with the USPTO. However, your logo is protected as of the date of filing, not the date of issue, so you can begin using your trademark immediately.

State vs. Federal Trademarks

State trademarks only protect a logo in a specific state. Federal trademarks offer national protection but are only available to companies conducting business in more than one state. However, businesses operating in only one state usually find that a state trademark offers enough protection. Web businesses or those operating across state lines may want the protection of a federal trademark.

I've Trademarked My Logo, Now What?

Anyone whose logo identifies a business or profession should seriously consider trademark protection. Once you establish your trademark, the legal mark lasts forever. Just make sure to keep up with registration renewals at the five and ten year marks.