What is a trademark?

Find out how trademarks differ from copyrights and patents, what can be trademarked, and more.

What would you like to protect?

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by Jane Haskins, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  2min read

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.

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.

illustration of a registered trademark symbol

What can be trademarked?

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. 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.
  • State trademark protection. 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.
  • Federal trademark 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 does trademark differ from copyright or patent?

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

  • Copyright. 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.
  • Patent. 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.
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Jane Haskins, Esq.

About the Author

Jane Haskins, Esq.

Jane Haskins is a freelance writer who practiced law for 20 years. Jane has litigated a wide variety of business dispute… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.