Common Questions: So You’re Starting a New Business, How Do You Protect your Brand?

In addition to the other concerns you may have about starting a new business, you will also be deciding how to brand your new products or services. Perhaps you’ve had a team of people working on identifying a good brand name – perhaps you’re working on it yourself. Either way, you want to make sure that no one else adopts the same (or substantially similar name) and competes with you. How do you do this?

Choosing a Name

From the perspective of telling the public what you do in as few words as possible, perhaps you’ve picked a very descriptive name – such as Women’s Clothing, Inc. (if you sell women’s clothing), on the theory that people will come to you for your products if they can see automatically what you sell. However, from the perspective of developing a unique brand name that your customers and competitors will come to associate with only your products or services, you really should create a name that does not describe or suggest what products/services you provide , or serve as a generic term for them. Good examples of strong marks are Kodak for photo paper or Google for Internet searching services.

In the trademark world, if you’ve made up the name completely from scratch, and there’s no descriptive quality to the name, you can develop a very strong brand which will allow customers to think of you automatically when seeing your mark. You are also more likely to be able to achieve federal trademark registration and to keep others from trying to trade on the good will you develop if they use a name that is confusingly similar to yours.

Protecting Your Mark

Protecting your valuable trademark requires a multi-pronged approach. Under current trademark law, you obtain trademark rights under “common law” the moment you begin using the mark in commerce in connection with certain goods or services. There are benefits to federally registering your trademark (such as the availability of treble damages for willful infringement of a registered mark, ability to obtain “incontestable” status after five years, etc.), so consider whether applying for registration makes sense for you.

There are also things you should do to police your mark: for instance, you should research what new products or services your competitors are delivering, and what new brand names they may use. You should periodically search both the Internet and any relevant trade periodicals that are important in your industry to ensure that no one else is using marks that are similar to yours for similar products or services. You should also periodically search the USPTO database to ensure that no competing applications are filed covering similar marks or goods/services. You can engage a commercial search service (such as Thompson Compumark or CT Corsearch among others) to watch for new applications for a fee.

A recent study by the Secretary of Commerce confirms that trademark owners are obligated to police their markets to ensure that infringement does not occur, but the report also suggests that any single enforcement tool may not be enough on its own. Similarly, recent cases suggest that you cannot delegate this burden entirely to a third party, but instead must rely on a variety of enforcement tools. Tiffany v. eBay, Civ. A. No. 08-3947, 600 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. April 1, 2010) (rejected on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court (see also this explanation)). In that case, Tiffany tried to hold eBay liable for accepting listings of counterfeit products that appeared to be Tiffany knockoffs. This case has been read to require that eBay would be obligated to take down any listings that were demonstrably counterfeit and about which the rights holder complained. And, while it had every incentive to remove counterfeit products it learned about, it was not responsible for pro-actively policing new listings to ensure that no further knockoffs were listed. This, instead, is the burden of the trademark owner.

Where to Go for Further Information

The US Patent and Trademark Office has some good resources to get you started in determining what creation and enforcement options may be right for you. You can also contact a trademark attorney for advice. Several bar associations for trademark attorneys are the American Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Law Section, International Trademark Association, Intellectual Property Owner’s Association and the American Intellectual Property Law Association. Each of these organizations provides information relating to trademark law that may be of interest to you.