Businesses, whether for-profit or nonprofit, often underestimate the value of their intellectual property, such as their logo.
Before the pre-internet era, if a business in another state or even a nearby county had similar (or identical) logos, names, or other trademarks, the duplication often was not materially detrimental to the small business. This is because competition was often regional rather than national. The advent of the internet now allows even the smallest business to have global reach, making it very important to protect the value of your logo.
Business logos are valuable intellectual property. More than a means to attract the customer's eye, business names and logos can become your brand identity (i.e. the Target "bullseye", the Starbucks "mermaid", or the McDonald's "double-arches"). For many iconic brands, consumers purchase goods as much for the logo or name as for the quality and type of product (i.e. the Rolex "crown").
What is a trademark?
To paraphrase the US Trademarks Act, a trademark is a mark (i.e. word, name, or symbol) used to distinguish your goods or services from those of another business. To realize how valuable trademarks are, on your next jaunt to the grocery store, notice the similarities between the name brand and generic products. The generics often look remarkably similar in name, logo, color, shape, and packaging, yet just enough different that you can distinguish between the brands.
Register your logo as a trademark.
To protect the value of your logo, consider registering your logo with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). To register, your attorney or trademark specialist will perform a trademark search to determine is your trademark is sufficiently "unique" that it is worth the expense and effort to file an application (or, to tell you that your trademark has already been registered by another business and to advise of your options). You will then submit a registration application with your logo, identifying the precise goods or services to which it will apply.
The USPTO will review your application and determine whether it is eligible for registration. Next, your mark will be published for opposition purposes, which means someone or some business could object to your trademark. If there are no objections, or if you overcome objections raised, your application will be granted.
What is common law registration?
You can still use your logo without registering it. By using your unregistered logo in public, you obtain a "common law" trademark and can use the "TM" or "SM" marks to denote your ownership. Unregistered trademarks enjoy only limited legal protection.
Do I need to register with both the State and the USPTO?
If you register nationally (at the USPTO) you receive national trademark protection. National registration is available only if you do business in more than one state. State registration provides legal protection only for the state in which you register.
Don't forget the periodic renewals.
Your registration will remain for as long as you maintain your renewals. For the USPTO, you must renew between the 5th and 6th anniversary of the registration date, the 9th and 10th anniversary, and every 10 years thereafter.
Christine Jarzab Kuntz is an attorney specializing in the life cycle of businesses and nonprofit organizations. She is enthusiastic to share her knowledge, tools, and tips with the business and nonprofit community. She enjoys the excitement of tutoring start-ups, tackling the challenges of established businesses, and counseling her clients' transitions through all stages of the business life cycle.