Your business’s name means a lot. It identifies your brand. It signifies your reputation. And it’s how your loyal customers know you.
But when a competitor sets up a business with a name that’s similar or identical to yours, your customers can become confused, you can lose business, and your reputation may suffer.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take now that will help ensure that your good name will stay that way.
Protecting Your Name in Your Home State
One of the best ways to protect your business name in your home state is to form a business entity such as a corporation or a limited liability company.
Your state’s business filing agency won’t let two business entities have the same name. In some states, business entities also can’t have names that are deceptively similar to one another. Because of this rule, incorporating or forming an LLC allows you to “claim” your name in your home state and prevent other business entities from using it.
You can check business name availability in your state by contacting the state agency that handles business filings. Many states allow you to search business names online.
If you plan to form a formal business entity but aren’t ready to do it right away, nearly all states allow you to reserve a business name. Different states allow reservations for different amounts of time.
The protection you receive when you form a business entity does have limits: your name won’t be protected outside your home state and an individual or business can still use your business name without setting up a formal business entity.
Filing a DBA or Registering a Business Name
Can you protect your business name without forming a corporation or an LLC?
Sole proprietorships and partnerships often use a business name that’s different than the business owner’s name. For example, someone named Bill Rogers might have a business called Clean Sweep Chimney Service. Corporations and LLCs also sometimes have one official name and another name that they use for their business. Clean Sweep LLC might have a shop called The Chimney Store, for example.
These unofficial business names are known as trade names, fictitious business names, or DBAs (for “doing business as”). If you have a DBA, you may be required to register it with your county or state, depending on which state your business is in. Some states and localities require DBA filings, while in others it is optional.
Registering a DBA lets people know who owns your business. It also creates a public record of your use of your business name and can discourage competitors from choosing a similar name. If your DBA is registered with the state as a trade name, other businesses may be prohibited from using that name, just as they would be prohibited from using a formal business entity’s name.
Trademark a Business Name
To be eligible for protection as a trademark, your business name must meet two criteria: it must be distinctive and it must not create a likelihood of confusion with other registered trademarks. You acquire a trademark in a business name by simply using it, but you can obtain much stronger protection by registering your name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Registration provides nationwide trademark protection, prevents others from registering a similar trademark, and creates an official record that can help deter other businesses from choosing a name similar to yours.
Not every business name can be trademarked. Generic or descriptive names are not eligible for trademark protection, so if your business is named “Fort Lauderdale Beach Rentals” or “Quality Carpet Cleaning,” you won’t be able to register a trademark and it will be difficult to use trademark laws to prevent others from using your name.
Copyrighting a Business Name
Copyrights protect original works of authorship. Names, including business names, are not considered works of authorship and are not eligible for copyright protection.
You can protect your business name online by registering it as a domain name. A domain name is the Internet address you type into your Internet browser, and you can purchase a domain name from a company that provides domain registration services.
Even if you don’t plan to create a website right away, registering a domain name will ensure that the Internet address that matches your business name will be available when you need it.
If you want to make sure that no other business uses your business name in its domain name, consider registering multiple domain names to encompass all the common domain name extensions. For example, if your business is called “Aloha,” you might register “aloha.com,” “aloha.net” and “aloha.info.”
Registering a domain name prevents another business from using that domain name, but it does not prevent another business from using your business’s name in other ways. In addition to the domain name, consider registering social media accounts under your business name to prevent someone else from establishing a Facebook page or Twitter account with your business name.
When it comes to protecting your business name, it pays to be proactive. Taking steps now to register your name locally, in your state, and nationally will help protect you from unauthorized use that can harm your business. And if you do suspect that another business is using your name, it’s a good idea to consult a lawyer to evaluate your options.
Planning a business in your home state? Check if your business name is available or reserve it until you’re ready to set up your company. If you plan to take your business nationwide, start with a trademark search to make sure your name is available.