Jay-Z and Beyoncé made headlines when they applied for a trademark for their daughter’s name, Blue Ivy. Beyoncé was apparently planning a line of baby products named after her offspring, but several other companies had filed competing trademark applications shortly after the little girl’s birth.
Though few infants seek trademarks, it’s common for celebrities to trademark their names to protect themselves from people who want to make a profit by using their name without permission.
If famous people are trademarking their names, you may be wondering, “Should I trademark my name too?”
For most people, the answer is no. The fact is, you can only trademark a name if you use it in your business. And you’ll have to show that people are likely to think of you and your goods or services when they hear the name.
If you do use your name for business and you are well known by the consuming public, then registering a trademark for your name might be a good idea.
Can you trademark a name?
Trademark law protects names, logos and other “marks” that are used in commerce. To register your name as a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), you must use it in business. Famous personalities like Julia Roberts and Michael Jackson can register their names as trademarks because their personal names are also their business names. But if—like most people—you only use your name for personal purposes, you can’t register it as a trademark.
In addition, you can’t trademark your name if it is likely to be confused with other registered trademarks. That means it can’t be similar to an existing trademark if the two trademarks relate to a similar type of goods or services. Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s application to trademark Blue Ivy was denied because that name was already being used by a Boston company, Blue Ivy Events. The rock guitarist Dweezil Zappa no doubt had an easier time showing that his name was unique.
If you use your name in business and it’s not likely to be confused with another trademark, you face one more obstacle that may be difficult to overcome—at least until you have been using your name in business for some time.
Because personal names fall into a trademark category known as “descriptive” marks, you usually can’t register your name as a trademark unless you can also show that it has “secondary meaning,,” which is usually acquired through advertising or long use. This means the name is so well known that when people hear it, they automatically associate it with the goods or services you provide. Examples of names that have this “secondary meaning” include singer Madonna, Tim Horton’s donut shop, and Mrs. Fields cookies.
Reasons to register a trademark
Although you may have some trademark protection simply by using your name in business, registering a trademark with the USPTO extends your trademark rights nationwide—an important benefit if you do business online or in more than one state or locality. Registration also makes it easier to establish your trademark ownership if there is a dispute, allows you to file a trademark infringement lawsuit in federal court, and makes it possible to register your trademark internationally.
Celebrities including Morgan Freeman and Nicole Kidman have also found that trademark registration can help them recover a domain name that has been registered by a cybersquatter. Under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, trademark owners can sue to collect damages and recover a domain name from a person who, with a bad faith intent to profit, registered a domain name similar or identical to their trademark.
To avoid having your trademark application rejected because of a likelihood of confusion with existing trademark names, you should always conduct a trademark search before trademarking a name. You can do this by accessing the USPTO’s online trademark database or conducting a more in-depth search with a trademark search service.
How do you trademark a name? You can file an application to register your trademark online. Your application must specify the goods or services associated with your name, and your trademark will extend only to those goods or services. Depending on the type of trademark and the issues that arise, it can take anywhere from several months to several years for the USPTO to register your trademark.
Registering a trademark for your personal name can be a good way to protect yourself from people who want to profit by using your name without your authorization. It can also help if you are a victim of cybersquatting. But not everyone can trademark their name—you must use it in your business and people must be likely to associate your name with the goods or services you provide.