Remember that your Trademark is an indication of the source
of goods or services
It is not the name or description of a specific thing, as such, nor is it
necessarily the same as your company name.
Be sure to use your mark correctly!
It is very important that a mark be used correctly, so that the mark's
character is preserved. This is sometimes stated as "a trademark is an
adjective, not a noun or verb."
That is, to use several famous examples:
- Always use the generic description of the goods in combination with the
mark: One can make copies on a "Xerox® photocopier", one does
not "make a xerox".
- Never use the mark as a verb: You can "copy" something on a
Xerox® copier, you cannot "xerox" it.
- Capitalize the mark, as appropriate: Xerox, Craftsman, Kodak
- Use the word "brand" if necessary to clarify the status of your
mark: One uses "Kleenex® Brand Facial Tissues", not "a
kleenex", and seals packages with "Scotch® brand adhesive
tape" not "scotch tape".
- Never let your mark become "generic": You cannot stop your
competitors from talking about their products by pre-empting the name of the
product. Thus, if a mark is not used correctly, there is a risk of it being
declared "generic". A generic mark is not really a trademark, but
the only way to refer to a product. Some examples of marks which have become
generic over the years are "yo-yo" (for "return tops"),
"aspirin" (for "acetylsalicylic acid"),
"escalator" (for "moving stairs"), "thermos"
(for "vacuum flasks"), "brassiere" for "ladies'
support garment" and many others.
Be sure to give the proper notice that you intend to
reserve rights to a trademark.
This is done by putting a trademark symbol (the r-in-a-circle symbol ®
for federally registered trademarks, TM or SM for
unregistered marks) next to the mark when it is used. It isn't really
necessary to clutter up every piece of text with the symbol every single
time the mark is used - you just need to give "adequate notice"
that you consider the word, phrase, etc., to be your mark. Certainly the symbol
should be used the first time a mark is used in a document or label, and
Some manufacturers put a note on each label or document listing all of the
marks on the label or document, and noting the trademark ownership
("Scotch® and Magic Tape® are Registered Trademarks of 3M
By the way, the Owl logo on these web pages, and the phrase
"our knowledge protects yours" are registered service marks of Brown &
If you use someone else's trademark be sure to acknowledge
their rights, too.
That is, if you talk about "Teflon®", be sure there's a
disclaimer somewhere that "Teflon is a registered trademark of DuPont."
The "BIC man" character at right is a registered trademark
of Bic Corporation.
Before you begin to use a mark, choose it carefully and be
sure you're not infringing on someone else's mark.
A trademark search is a basic first step for anyone considering adopting a
new trademark or service mark. With today's computerized databases, a trademark
search is relatively inexpensive and fast, and cheap insurance against having to
change your mark or defend a lawsuit later. We recommend that you start by doing
a preliminary search yourself. Then, when you've settled on a mark you think
is OK, confirm it by having a professional search done.
See our Trademark
Budget Estimator for our fees for trademark searching. If you have a
trademark search done by a service, be sure it includes Federal and State
Registered Marks, at a minimum, and an opinion on the results.
You should not stop with registered marks, either - check out the World-Wide
Web search engines and yellow-pages listing to find anyone using the mark who
has not (yet) registered. You wouldn't want to spend a fortune adopting and
promoting a mark nationwide, only to find out that a competitor has prior use
The test of a mark is "likelihood of confusion" - that is, is the
proposed mark so close to an existing mark that it is likely to confuse the
intended consumer as to the source of the goods? If there is any question, play
it safe and try another mark (or consider contacting the prior user and getting
his OK, if you really want to use a mark which might be a problem).
Choose the "strongest" mark possible.
Marks vary in strength over a spectrum from a coined or invented mark, which
can be very strong, through generic marks, which are not really trademarks at
all. The stronger a mark is, the broader the protection it is afforded.
- Coined or Fanciful Marks are those which have no meaning, outside of the mark
itself. "Kodak" or "Xerox" are good examples. Neither had
any meaning in any language before they were invented to describe new
- Arbitrary marks use ordinary words, but the words are not
associated with the product. For example, "Shell" for petroleum
products, "Wishbone" for salad dressing, "Amazon" for a
"Apple" for computers.
- Suggestive marks are less broadly protected, since the words in the
mark are associated with the product. They become stronger through use, as the
mark acquires distinctiveness. "Rent-a-Wreck" for auto renting
services is suggestive.
- Descriptive marks convey an immediate idea of ingredients, qualities
or characteristics of the goods or services. "Very Best" might be a
descriptive mark. "Chapstick" is descriptive, as it immediately
suggests a stick for chapping. If the mark functions to identify the source of
the goods, either when adopted or through use, it may be registrable, but is
afforded less protection than coined, arbitrary, or suggestive marks. The
division between suggestive and descriptive marks is not always easy to spot.
- Generic marks, as noted above, are not registrable and convey no
rights at all.
It's been our experience that most people choose marks which are very weak
and, in general, forgettable. Marketing departments dearly love generic marks,
and can't understand why we would advise against "Raspberry Beer" as a
mark for beer made with raspberries (yuck!). "Michael Shea's Irish Amber" (an
actual trademark of the Genessee Brewing Co.) is much more distinctive and memorable than "Pretty
Good Beer" would be.
There are lots of sources for good marks - look in an encyclopedia or
dictionary, or to mythology or geography or history, for words whose
connotations are positive and appropriate to your product. "Midas"
implies wealth (for mufflers? Must be a connection somewhere),
"Hercules" for strength (registered for rope since 1870, among 198
other things), "Mercury" for speed (FTD florist symbol or boat
motors), the Rock of
Gibraltar for permanence (used by Prudential Insurance), "George
Washington" for honesty (broth, apples, many others), "Obsession"
for emotional appeal (a perfume brand), and so on.
Coined marks can be very strong and valuable, and you can make them sound as
if they mean something when they do not. Consider "Häagen-Dazs" ice
cream (an all-American product made in New Jersey, but sounds ever so
Scandinavian), or the Oldsmobile "Achieva" or Compaq
"Presario" (sounds elegantly European, but are meaningless), or
"Exxon" gasoline (a purely coined mark slightly reminiscent of their former
"Esso" mark, and without the "S.O." [Standard Oil]
If you are planning for a line of products, consider choosing a mark which
lends itself to becoming a "family" of marks. For example, Kodak has a
wide variety of marks beginning with "Kod", as in "Kodell"
for fabrics, "Kodalux" for processing, "Kodachrome" for
film, and so on.
Avoid these Marks!
Some marks, otherwise valid, are either prohibited by law or convey no
rights. These marks should be avoided:
- Geographic origin or primarily a surname: For example,
"Ithaca" for maps of the City of Ithaca, or for T-shirts with the
name "Ithaca" on them made and sold in Ithaca, New York. On the
other hand, there are "Ithaca® shotguns" (which are no longer made
in Ithaca, New York, by the way), which is a perfectly acceptable (and quite
famous) trademark. The test is whether or not the purchaser is buying the
product because of the geographic connotation (California Wine or those
t-shirts as souvenirs of a visit to beautiful Ithaca, New York) or because the
mark is associated with the product (Ithaca shotguns). Beware of using a
geographic location in a misleading way - "California's Best Wine"
for wine made in New Jersey, for example.
- Scandalous or disparaging marks: obscenities, racial or ethnic
epithets, etc. Pardon us for not providing examples on this family-friendly
- Insignia of a government agency, or of certain organizations protected by
law. For example, the insignia or name of the FBI, the Boy Scouts (BSA)
or Girl Scouts (GSUSA), DAR, VFW, Little League, Olympics, etc., are all
protected by various federal laws.
- Flags or National or State Insignia: Section 2(b) of the trademark
act prohibits registration of a mark which "Consists of or comprises
the flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any
State or municipality, or of any foreign nation, or any simulation
thereof." Stylized flags might be acceptable if (a) the flag
design is used to form a letter, number, or design; (b) The flag is
substantially obscured by words or designs; (c) The design is not in a shape
normally seen in flags; (d) The flag design appears in a color different
from that normally used in the national flag; or (e) A significant feature
is missing or changed.
- Identifies a living individual or deceased president during the life of
his widow without consent. Note that many states have "rights of
publicity" and privacy laws which would also affect the choice of an
individual's name, even if deceased. If you file to register a mark which
appears to be someone's name, you may be required to state that no such person
exists (for example, there never was a "Betty Crocker"), that the
person is long dead (i.e. "Ethan Allen" for furniture) or to supply
a written permission from the person named (Roy Rogers, no doubt, had to give
permission for use of his name in connection with fast food).
There seems to be a segment of the population which thinks it's a good idea
to run to the Trademark Office and apply to register the names of
recently-famous (or notorious) people as trademarks, presumably in hopes of
cashing in on someone else's fame. Don't bother - the USPTO has a policy of
watching for such applications and quickly rejecting them out of hand. For
example, the birth of baby "Blue Ivy Carter" to singers Beyonce
and Jay-Z in early 2012 led to a spate of applications to register the
baby's name for a range of products. All such applications were rejected
- "Famous" marks. Normally, marks are protected in the area of
commerce in which they have been used. Thus, it is possible for there to be
200 registrations for "Hercules" used on a wide variety of goods
from soap and rope to computer graphics. Some marks are so inherently famous,
however, that any use of the mark or anything like it is a problem, even if
the famous owner has not and never will enter your field. You can expect to
receive a nasty letter from Rochester if you announce your new "Kodak Dog
Food", and forget that "Xerox House Paint".
- "Clever" Misspellings of Otherwise Unusable Marks. No, you
can't use "Koke", "Polaroyd", "Z-Rocks" or
"Codac". They are too close to the famous marks. A descriptive mark
like "speedy" for a fast car is not registrable if you write it
"spee-d". Similarly, if "Broccoli" is generic for
broccoli, then so is "Brokoli".
- Marks using elements which are protected under other laws. For
example, don't even think of using Mickey Mouse as your logo, even if he (and
his ears, alone, for that matter) weren't a registered trademark of the Disney
company. Drawings of Mickey and friends are protected under copyright.
Mouse ears are a registered trademark of Walt Disney
Watch out for pitfalls...
- Foreign Words should be evaluated in terms of their English meanings.
The popular "Pschitt soda" from France (a Perrier brand), or "Bimbo"
doughnuts from Mexico are unlikely to make it big under those names in
English-speaking countries. "Barberskum" is a Scandinavian word for
shaving cream which probably would not be good choice in the US, and the
Japanese "Asse" candy or "B-M" coffee are not a good bet
for import, either.
- English words should be checked as to their meaning in
foreign languages, if international marketing is contemplated. Some Coca Cola
bottlers found out that the
Chinese characters they chose to represent the sounds "Coca Cola"
meant "bite the wax tadpole" - not a connotation they would have
chosen. Eventually they changed to characters which sounded the same, but
meant "happiness in the mouth." Clairol's "Mist Stick" fell flat in Germany - where
"mist" is slang for "manure".
You might have heard the story about the Chevy Nova, too. According to the
story, General Motors discovered too late that "No va"
means "it doesn't go" in Spanish, so they couldn't sell cars until
they changed the name. Unfortunately, it isn't true - see the Snopes Urban
Legends page. GM knew what "no va" meant, but assumed
(correctly) that any Spanish speaker would recognize the difference between
the ungrammatical "no va" and the brand "Nova". As a
matter of fact, Nova sold quite well in Latin America, and the name never was
changed. Makes a good story, though, doesn't it?
- Consider Regional Variations in English, too: Even other English-speaking countries might have problems with marks
which are innocuous in American English - while you can easily sell a
"fanny pack" in American stores to American boys, British boys would
find the suggestion laughable (they don't have "fannies", only girls
do, and in front, not behind...). Most English speakers (other than Americans)
would pronounce the letter "Z" as zed, while Americans use zee,
so any mark depending on either pronunciation would fall flat in the other
region (the many American "E-Z" product names just don't have the
same connotation when pronounced "ee-zed"). In reverse,
we've been approached by a number of foreign clients over the years who
wanted to register English words which were innocuous in their countries,
but had unsavory or offensive connotations here.
Marks which are in use in interstate or foreign commerce (i.e. are sold over
state lines, or between the U.S. and foreign countries) may be registered in the
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Such registration conveys a number of
advantages, not the least of them being actual nationwide notice to possible
infringers. Registration allows the trademark owner to use the (r) symbol, to
sue in federal courts, to recover damages, profits and costs from an infringer,
and conveys a presumption of validity to the ownership and right to use the
mark. After 5 years of registered use, the mark may, upon application, be
declared incontestable. Federal registration also allows you to file for
registration in other countries.
You may apply for a trademark registration either before or after you use the
mark, but a registration will not be issued until the mark is actually used. The
registration is effective for 10 years, but may be renewed over and over for so
long as the mark continues to be used. See our "Questions
and Answers on Trademarks" for more information on registration.
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