Trademarks are valuable words and symbols that businesses use to identify themselves and their products and services.
Before you start using any trademarks in your business, you need to know if a similar trademark has already been registered to someone else.
If it has, you can avoid a lot of trouble and create a stronger brand by selecting a different trademark.
Why a trademark lookup is important
If you start a business using a trademark that another business has already registered, you won't be able to register that trademark for your business. More importantly, you risk being sued for trademark infringement.
A trademark infringement claim may mean a lawsuit that will cost tens of thousands of dollars and take months to resolve. Or, to avoid litigation, you may have to change your name (and your signs, packaging, labels, and website) and spend additional money marketing your new identity. Conducting a trademark lookup before you start your business can help you avoid these expensive and time-consuming problems.
If you plan to apply for trademark registration, a registered trademark search can increase the chance that your application will be granted.
One of the main reasons that applications are denied is a “likelihood of confusion" with an existing trademark.
There's a likelihood of confusion if two marks are similar and are used for related goods and services, such that the public might think that both came from the same source.
A U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) trademark lookup will identify similar and confusing marks, giving you a chance to choose a different mark before you spend hundreds of dollars on nonrefundable trademark application fees or thousands of dollars branding your business.
How to do a registered trademark search
Anyone can search trademarks for free using the USPTO's Trademark Electronic Search System, or TESS. While it's relatively easy to search for direct name matches, trademark searches can grow complicated and you may want help to conduct a more thorough search.
The purpose of your search is to unearth marks that are similar to yours and used on related goods or services.
Marks can be similar without being identical. For example, names may be similar if they look alike or sound alike. The USPTO uses the example of “T.Markey" and “Tee Marquee" to illustrate similar names. When you check trademark status, look for alternate spellings and word endings, as well as exact matches.
It is possible to have identical registered trademarks if the goods and services are unrelated, such as Delta faucets and Delta airlines. Related goods and services are similar or usually sold together, such as clothing and shoes, or coffee and doughnuts. Therefore, when you find a similar mark, you must also check to see if it has been registered for a related type of goods or services.
Conducting a trademark check
To search the USPTO's trademark database, go to TESS and choose a search option. If you are searching for a name, you can use the trademark name search. If you are searching a design mark, such as a logo, you will first need to look up your design code using the USPTO's Design Search Code Manual.
A TESS name search allows you to look for plurals. However, the search will not automatically find words that sound like your trademark but are spelled differently. This means that in order to find similar marks, you will need to conduct multiple searches using as many variations on your name as you can come up with. You can search for the exact name, or for any trademark that contains the words in your name.
Each time you search trademarks, review the results for marks that are the same as or similar to yours. Make a list of the similar or identical marks, along with information about the types of goods or services they are registered for.
Then take note of any of the similar marks that are registered for goods or services that are similar to yours. Consult the USPOs online Acceptable Identification of Goods and Services Manual for information about how to describe goods or services and the international trademark class they fall into. This can help you identify what types of goods or services are most closely related to yours.
Expanding your search and getting help
Searching for exact trademark matches is fairly easy, but uncovering spelling and name variations can be much harder. Design searches also can be challenging.
A professionally conducted search can save time and can give you more complete results than you might get on your own.
If your search uncovers a similar registered trademark, it can be hard to know for sure whether the similarity would defeat a trademark application or potentially lead to a trademark infringement claim. If you are uncertain, consult a trademark lawyer for advice before you invest time and money in trademarking.
And remember that a USPTO trademark search will only uncover registered trademarks. It won't find trademarks that have state or common law rights that could impact your ability to use your trademark in a particular locality. A more comprehensive trademark check will help you find these marks and ensure that you can use and protect your trademarks with confidence.