Are you are wondering exactly what a trademark is and whether or not your company needs one. Put simply, the trademark is an incredibly important protection for you and your business and yes, you probably need one.
To understand why trademarks are so important, you need to know what they are and how they compare to other intellectual property protections like patents and copyrights. Patents protect inventions (new devices, new production methods and so on). Copyrights protect creative expression (books, websites, music, even TV commercials).
Trademarks, on the other hand, protect the brand itself. They are a protection on the words, phrases, logos, and more (even the name of your company or brand) that identify you in the market and help people find you. Without a trademarked brand, a satisfied customer will have a hard time referring their friends to your business. With the use of a strong trademark, customers can find your products or services even in a crowded market category.
How Trademarks Work
A strong, effective trademark is one that is immediately recognizable and can’t be confused with anything else. As a result, brand names that use generic industry terms (such as “bicycles” for a bicycle company) are generally hard or impossible to trademark. Just about every bicycle company will have bicycle in their name, so it’s neither recognizable nor distinctive. On the other hand, Bicycle Playing Card Company is a strong, effective trademark because bicycles aren’t typically associated with playing cards. Coupled with the distinctive bicycle artwork on the card back, a pack of Bicycle cards is recognizable.
What’s more, a strong trademark allows satisfied customers to recognize or seek out other products by the same provider. In the example above, even if Bicycle changes the back design of their cards or releases a special edition with no bicycles on it at all, the trademarked brand name Bicycle in the playing card industry is recognizable. Customers who see the name or logo know what to expect and can buy the new deck with confidence.
The Importance of Protecting Your Trademark
Because a successful trademark identifies the producer or provider of the goods and services, the trademark as an immediately recognizable calling card for your company or brand. This means that protecting your trademark is of vital importance.
The two main dangers to a trademark are over-identification and bad reputation. Over-identification occurs when the trademark starts to be used in place of the generic word (like “zipper”, “flip phone”, or “laundromat”). In these cases, the trademark loses power because it is so closely tied to the product or service that it is used to describe all brands in the category.
Bad reputation is exactly what it sounds like. If a company or brand makes headlines for a serious recall or even just gains a reputation as being unreliable or low-quality, the recognition of the trademark becomes a hindrance, not a help. Imagine, for instance, a company that produces lots of wooden items with a lathe: vases, drumsticks, chair legs, dowel rods, and pepper grinders. Now imagine that the pepper grinders gain a reputation for breaking in the first month. If the company has a strong, easily recognized trademark customers who have learned to avoid the pepper grinders can (and probably will) avoid other products that bear the same mark, even if the other products are well made.
To Register or Not to Register?
There are two different, common trademark indicators you may have seen: trademark™ and registered trademark®. What’s the difference?
Well, the basic difference is how official the mark is. Anyone can create a common law (“TM”) trademark simply by creating and using something distinctive and recognizable and putting the TM after it. In order to use the “R” trademark, though, you need to register your mark with the federal government. That implies some costs and paperwork, of course, but it also carries a lot of important benefits that can protect your marks and, by extension, your business’s well-being.
Registering ensures your mark is recognized nationwide, prevents others from registering confusingly similar marks, and provides a strong basis for litigation or negotiation in case someone does copy your mark or create a confusingly similar one. Registering also provides you a basis for getting your mark recognized abroad.
Getting and Protecting Your Trademark
Due to the importance of a strong trademark with a healthy reputation, how seriously you take the process can make or break a company or brand. First, if you don’t yet have a trademark, you should consider working with someone experienced in trademarks to develop a mark that will serve you well. Remember that it needs to be distinctive, recognizable, and not easily confused with others. Marketing and design strategists like those at ABE Studios can help you create a mark that not only identifies you but represents who you are.
Regardless of whether or not you register, you should consider hiring a lawyer skilled in trademark law. After all, the mark is only as good as its reputation and it ability to distinguish you from your competitors. A good trademark lawyer can help protect you if other parties create similar marks and can ensure that your mark is used only for your products or services – avoiding the problem of over-identification. If you decide to register, the lawyer will also help you navigate the application process and ensure that your mark is successfully registered.