Searching for potentially competing trademarks before you go through the time and expense of developing a strong brand is a very worthwhile exercise, but it costs money – and sometimes clients can be reluctant to spend the money if it’s not technically “required” to do so.
Trademark searching is not required before you file an application for federal trademark registration with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), but it is highly recommended. Here are a few reasons why:
1) The USPTO’s filing fees are non-refundable if an Examining Attorney refuses registration of your mark based on a pre-existing application or a registration owned by another;
2) The owner of the pre-existing mark could send you a cease and desist letter demanding that you stop using their mark, change your mark, perhaps destroy products or advertising material that uses the mark, seek disgorgement of profits for earnings using their mark or seek other remedies; and
3) The whole point of developing a valuable trademark (or service mark) is to create “source identification” – basically, to allow the consuming public to associate your unique mark with you. And only you. This value is undermined if there are lots of marks that are very similar to the one you ultimately adopt and use.
There are different levels of searching that can be beneficial – depending on your circumstances. They include:
Brief Internet Search – While this level of searching would not give you a comprehensive picture of all potential risks in adopting and using a mark, it’s a good first step. You might find an exact match that would cause you to change your brand strategy. But, again, it’s not complete and other risks may still exist.
Knockouts/Screenings – This search only targets the USPTO’s database of federal trademark registrations and pending applications, focusing on close matches to see whether there might be an absolute bar to your application. Again, not a complete picture of potential conflicting marks, but it might find exact matches you want to avoid.
Full Searches – Using various tools and databases, this search looks for competing trademark uses in the USPTO’s database, state registration databases, at common law, in corporate registrations, domain names, the Internet and other relevant resources. These searches may be performed by commercial vendors, whose charges to undertake these searches will vary based on particular circumstances.
Design searches (looking for logos or other designs) and/or international searches (scope and cost can vary based on jurisdictions) may also be relevant to confirm that a mark you propose to use in a particular market is clear.
Each set of search results should be reviewed and discussed with your trademark attorney to determine whether a particular mark can be considered “clear” and available for use – or perhaps poses a risk because of certain search results. Sometimes search results from either a quick or knockout search will cause you to want to dig deeper to be sure that a mark is clear for use or simply change your mark and start over.
Once you have received the results of a search – and have consulted with your attorney to figure out how much weight to give the results – you can decide whether to pursue an application for federal registration or to modify a litigation defense strategy, if you’ve already received a cease and desist letter.
In either event, search results can go stale because a new application can be filed or use of a mark can begin almost immediately after the results have been obtained. As a result, you should not sit on search results too long before taking your next step. If substantial time has passed, you may want to revisit the search and perform an update to be sure nothing new has been filed.