Trademark Basics: What you need to know

Trademark Basics: What you need to know

Thinking about getting a trademark? Researching? Googling? Learning? Start here.

So, what’s a trademark?

A trademark is generally a word, design, or phrase that identifies the company or person that provides a good or service. An example of a design trademark could be a logo, and a phrase trademark may could be a tagline.

For example, the McDonald’s corporation owns lots of different types trademarks; there are name trademarks, which include the name of the company (McDonald’s) and names of products, like Big Mac and Filet-o-Fish; and stylized versions of their name, like the golden arches M. They also own phrase trademarks; those are taglines like I’m Lovin’ it, Made for you and Give a little love. Their design trademarks include things like their mascot Ronald McDonald, their new anthropomorphic happy meal mascot, and that little yellow smile line.

How long have trademarks been in use?

People have been using trademarks for thousands of years! Ancient Roman and Egyptian craftmakers commonly placed names or symbols on their goods so they could be traced back to their makers. In medieval England, bakers were required to put a unique mark on all their breads in order to combat bread fraud. Ale makers similarly had to erect alestakes outside their establishments so that local government officials could find their businesses and test their wares to ensure they were safe and abiding by the law. Similar trademark laws popped up all over the world, but the world’s first comprehensive modern trademark law didn’t come into being until the 1857 French Manufacture and Goods Mark Act. The United States trademark system has gone through a few incarnations but has operated under the Lanham Act since 1946.

What’s the purpose of a trademark?

Trademarks demonstrate brand consistency. communicate a lot of information quickly and efficiently. When you drink a can with the trademarked Coca-Cola logo, you can expect it to taste the same as any other can with a Coca-Cola logo on it. When you’re at a Home Depot store, you know that that location will operate similarly to every other Home Depot store. This quick communication of source and quality is particularly important in our modern economy, as people buying a specific type of shampoo from Pantene in Florida can safely assume that they’ll get the same Pantene product if they buy it in Oregon or Texas.

How do I own a trademark?

You actually can gain some rights to a trademark just by using it with your products or services. However, these “common law” trademark rights are limited and vulnerable. A company that’s been operating under one name for 20 years without registering a trademark for that name could lose their rights to their name if someone else registers a legal trademark with similar goods and services.Every trademark is made up of two parts: the trademark itself and the goods or services it’s used with. So if you register the trademark UNICORN PRINCESS for lipstick, no one else in the country will be able to use that trademark with lipstick products. Your trademark registration’s protection also extends to related goods or services. This means that others won’t be able to use UNICORN PRINCESS with goods usually provided by the same companies that sell lipstick, such as face powder, mascara, or bronzer. However, if someone wanted to register UNICORN PRINCESS as a trademark for use with completely different goods or services, such as a restaurant or children’s toys, your trademark registration would not affect that use, as no one would reasonably assume that the same company started selling both lipstick and children’s toys under the same name.It can come as an unpleasant surprise to people who have been using their name or logo or tagline for years to learn that they don’t legally own their brand’s most valuable assets. A registered trademark is the best, and most secure way to ensure that your business and all its most critical elements are protected.