Trademark a Symbol

Trademark a Symbol

by Jane Haskins, Esq., January 2015

You can obtain trademark protection for a symbol that you use to distinguish your business’s goods or services from those of other businesses. For example, Nike’s “swoosh” symbol is a registered trademark.

To trademark a symbol:

  • You must use the symbol to identify your goods and services, such as using the symbol in your company logo. You cannot trademark a symbol that you only use for personal purposes or that you use only as part of an item that you sell, such as a symbol printed on a t-shirt. Those symbols may, however, be protected by a copyright.
  • The symbol must be distinctive: It cannot be just a letter, number, punctuation mark or other commonly used symbol. However, you might be able to register a trademark for these types of symbols if they have additional design elements.
  • The symbol cannot be confusingly similar to another registered trademark or pending trademark application. This means that the symbol cannot be similar to another trademark that identifies a related good or service.

Can Your Symbol Be Registered as a Trademark?

Trademark protection is only available for symbols that are distinctive enough to set your business apart from other businesses. The more unique your symbol, the greater its trademark protection and the easier it will be to register a trademark.

Therefore, an unusual symbol that you make up will be easiest to register, and a symbol that is nothing more than a common punctuation mark is so generic that it cannot be registered. The less unique your symbol is, the more likely that you will have to show that your symbol has acquired a “secondary meaning,” which means that when people see your symbol, they automatically think of your goods or services.

Registering a Trademark for a Symbol vs. a Logo 

Many business logos include a symbol as part of the logo. When you trademark a symbol or logo, your trademark registration only covers the exact image that you submitted with your registration. So, if you submitted your symbol, you have a registered trademark for the symbol—but not for your logo as a whole. If you submitted your logo, you have a trademark for the overall logo, but that may not be sufficient to protect you from unauthorized use of the symbol by itself.

Registering a Trademark for a Symbol

You can register a trademark for a symbol online using the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) or other online trademark service.

  • If your symbol consists of a combination of existing characters (such as %&!), you may be able to register it in standard character format. This would protect your trademark in your symbol regardless of the way it is displayed.
  • If your symbol is not composed of standard characters or its distinctiveness depends on its font, color or design, it is registered as a “special form mark.” As part of the application process, you will need to upload a digital file with an image of your symbol. A .jpg is prefered by the USPTO. The symbol that you attach to your application is the only version of your symbol that will receive federal trademark registration. You may also need to describe colors or other elements contained in your symbol.
  • The fee for a trademark application is $275–$325, depending on the type of trademark you’re applying for. These fees can change, so check with the USPTO for the most recent fees.
  • The trademark registration process can take a minimum of several months.

If you want to register a trademark for a symbol, LegalZoom can help. Simply answer a few questions online and provide a sample of your mark, and we'll conduct a federal direct-hit search of similar trademarks, create your application and file it with the USPTO. Plus, you can get legal advice from an attorney for 30 days as part of the Complete Coverage package.