What Is a Trademark?

What Is a Trademark?

by Jane Haskins, Esq., January 2015

What is a trademark? A trademark is a design, symbol, word or phrase that identifies the source of your products and distinguishes them from the products of other companies. For example, the word “Coca-Cola” is a trademark, as are “Coca-Cola” written in stylized script and the original curvy Coca-Cola bottle design.

A service mark is a trademark for a company that provides services. The word “trademark” is often used to refer to both trademarks and service marks.

What Kinds of Things Can Be Registered as Trademarks?

You can trademark many of the things that you use to distinguish your business from other businesses. You might have a trademark for:

  • Your business name
  • A product name
  • Your logo or label
  • A symbol or design
  • A sound 
  • A product package

How Do You Protect a Trademark?

You do not get trademark protection by registering your mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Trademark protection comes from using a mark in commerce to identify the source of your business’s goods or services.

A mark may have any of the following types of trademark protection: common law trademark protection, state trademark registration and federal trademark registration.

  • If you have been using a mark but have never registered it, your mark may have common law trademark protection. You may be able to prevent others from using your mark if you can show that you used it first, but your trademark rights may be limited to the geographic areas where you do business.
  • You may also have filed a trademark with the state where your business is located. This will help you protect your trademark within the state, but it does not give you nationwide protection.
  • You can register your trademark with the USPTO. This registration gives you nationwide protection and establishes when you began using the mark, as well as provides other advantages.

How Long Does a Trademark Last?

A common law trademark may last for as long as you continue to use the mark, though you could lose your protection if you fail to enforce your rights.

A federal trademark registration lasts for 10 years and is renewable for additional 10-year periods. State trademark registrations are governed by state law, and the requirements vary from state to state.

How Is a Trademark Different Than a Copyright or a Patent?

Trademarks, copyrights and patents all protect your rights to your intellectual property. However, each protects a different type of property.

  • A copyright protects an original work of authorship, such as written material, a photograph, a drawing or a song. Copyright protects your right to reproduce, perform, distribute or display your work or to create other works based upon it. Your work is protected by copyright as soon as it is created, but you can also register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • A patent protects an invention. If you have a patent, you have a right to make and sell your invention for a limited time, depending on the type of patent you’ve gotten. In exchange for this right, you disclose your invention to the public when you file your patent application. You must apply to the USPTO to receive a patent.

When you are ready to register a trademark, LegalZoom can help. The service includes a direct-hit search of the federal database as well as electronic filing of your trademark application. Plus, you can get legal advice from an attorney for 30 days as part of the Complete Coverage package.