business card design showing off a trademarked business name

How to trademark a business name, product or service

Reading time: 7 minutes

Trademarks give companies legal ownership over their identity. Without it, others can misrepresent your brand, whether intentionally or not. But obtaining this legal right means wading through no shortage of confusing legal bureaucracy. While the process might seem intimidating at first, we’re going to show you just how simple it is by explaining what and how to trademark a business name.

What is a trademark?

A trademark is a legal signifier for branding that identifies an individual or organization as the owner of specific products or services. In case of conflict, it legally signifies the original source of goods/services and prevents confusion among similar businesses. Although it’s most commonly used for businesses, any organization can register a trademark.

text logo for humane studios in navy and gold

Brand names, slogans, and logos are among the most common trademark branding Source: aleT.

One important distinction: trademark law does not grant broad legal ownership over the trademarked word or branding itself — the trademark holder owns the right to that branding only as it applies to a specific trade. For example, a jewelry store might be able to trademark the name Hidden Gems, but they wouldn’t be able to prevent a thrift store from using that same name. If a lawful trademark is infringed, businesses have the right to pursue legal action, but they are ultimately responsible for trademark enforcement.

Trademark vs. patent vs. copyright: how intellectual property works

Trademark, patent and copyright are all included under the category of intellectual property (IP), but each serves a distinct legal purpose.

A trademark defines the owner of goods or services whereas a patent defines the owner of an invention or process. So a business can use a patented technology for the creation of a trademarked product. While a trademark is strictly protective, a patent is often created for licensing out new technology, allowing inventors to earn royalties.

Logo design of a mad scientist character for a marketing brand

Patents specifically protect inventors. Design by Visunu

Copyright is concerned with creative works such as art, music and literature. Unlike trademarks and patents, (which are both registered via an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO) copyright is automatically bestowed the moment a work is created, provided you can prove you’re the original creator. With that said, there are some automatic trademark rights bestowed that we’ll cover later on.

What can you trademark?

Almost anything that identifies the owner of a product or service can be trademarked—the USPTO specifies “any word, phrase, symbol, design or a combination of these things.” In addition to branding that you are already using, you can register a trademark for branding that you intend to use in the future.

Brand identity design for a fashion brand

Almost any brand element that identifies a business can be trademarked, including branded patterns and colors. Design by aran&xa

Common branding elements a business might trademark include the brand name, individual product names, slogans, logos, characters or mascots, and branded designs, colors or patterns. Even sound designs can be trademarked—for example, Netflix has trademarked the signature sound that plays when the video loads. For this article, we’ll be focusing on names, one of the more popular trademarks.

How to trademark a business name

There are two main types of trademarks to pursue: registered (represented by the ® symbol) and unregistered (represented by the ™ symbol) trademarks.

An unregistered trademark is one not approved by the USPTO. However, businesses may use the ™ symbol in order to publicly indicate that they invoke their common law trademark rights. Even without official registration, common law grants legal IP rights from the moment a business starts using goods or services. Those rights are simply not as enforceable as a registered trademark and are mostly restricted to the business’s local area. While the ™ symbol is not needed to claim these rights, it provides clarity as to what the business considers trademarked.

Doctor mascot design for a trademarking brand

Design by Aga Ochoco

A registered trademark is one that you have officially obtained from the USPTO, and it offers the highest level of federal IP protection. For international protection on imported goods, businesses register the trademark with the US Customs and Border Protection after approval from the USPTO.

Let’s cover the process for submitting a registered trademark application for review by a USPTO examining attorney.

Step 1: Make sure your trademark is truly original

According to the USPTO, the most common reason for application rejection is conflict with an existing trademark. So before you apply, make sure your name is in no way similar to anyone else’s.

USPTO maintains a database of trademarks known as the Trademark Electronic Search System. Search this database for similar or related names, including alternate/stylized spellings or homophones, in addition to exact matches. The examining attorney will reject trademarks they deem too similar, which can be somewhat subjective.

Logo design for a physical fitness brand

Completely original names make for the strongest trademarks. Design by artsigma

The trademark must also be unique in and of itself—that means no generic words (including simple descriptive words or location-based words). There are different types of trademarks which the USPTO classifies on a scale from strong to weak to indicate marks with the highest chance of approval.

Strong types of trademarks: 

  • Fanciful mark – the strongest type of mark, a completely original word or design, eg “Exxon”
  • Arbitrary mark – an ordinary word that comes to identify a brand outside of its original context, e.g. “Amazon” for ecommerce
  • Suggestive mark – words that indirectly reference aspects or qualities of the product or service, e.g. “Coppertone” for sunscreen.

The weakest type of trademark is a descriptive mark, or one that only describes the product or service without strongly distinguishing it from another source. An example would be the word “green” for a plant shop. Weak marks cannot be trademarked. 

Step 2: Prepare your trademark application

To successfully complete your trademark application, there is specific information you will need to have ready on-hand:

  • Know your trademark format, whether it is a standard character or special form format. Names typically fall under the former category.
  • Have the names and designs that you want to trademark on-hand. In addition, the USPTO requires a “drawing” of the trademark, which is just a representation of the trademark, either an image or a word or phrase.
  • Define your filing basis, whether you are filing for a trademark already in commercial use or with intent to use in future. In the latter case, know the date the trademark will come into use.
  • Identify your trademark class or invent a custom class. The USPTO categorizes goods and services under classes numbering 1 to 45. For example, class 25 is “clothing.”
Illustration of a cartoon hand holding a checklist

Before starting your trademark application, make a checklist of everything you need. Design by camiflamenco

Before applying, prepare a budget. Application fees run between $250 and $350. In addition, you must file a separate application for each class your trademark will cover.

The last thing you should be prepared for is to wait. Processing times vary based on application volume, and there are specific windows in which USPTO accepts new applications.

Step 3: Apply for a trademark

There are two types of trademark applications, TEAS Plus and TEAS Standard. Plus is the cheaper option ($250) that uses predefined trademark classes, which are described in the Trademark ID Manual. For this reason, it has a lower rate of rejection. If you need to create a custom class for your goods and services, you will need the more expensive Standard ($350) option.

After you apply, stay on the lookout for correspondence from the USPTO. Non-response to a request from the examining attorney can cause your application to be abandoned. The USPTO also recommends that you check the status of your application via the Trademark Status and Document Retrieval (TSDR) every 3-4 months.

Illustration of character working at a desk

Design by spoonlancer

If your application is successful—congratulations! Your trademark will never expire as long as you continue to use it. However, you do need to periodically submit documentation to maintain your trademark. After the fifth anniversary, you must send a sworn statement to the USPTO that you are still using the trademark. Following this, you’ll send proof, such as a photo of the trademark in use, every tenth anniversary.

If your application is rejected, you’ll receive feedback from the examining attorney. You can either file an appeal or make changes based on the feedback and submit another application.

Is a registered trademark necessary?

Whether it is necessary to get a trademark depends on your resources and how much legal protection you need. Let’s go over some general pros and cons.

Pros of registering a trademark

  • Offers the highest level of federal legal protection (and some international protection) and shields your brand’s reputation
  • Lists your trademark in the USPTO database—this lowers the odds that someone will use it by mistake
Logo design for an IP protection service

Trademarks protect brands from intellectual property theft. Design by Swantz

Cons of registering a trademark

  • Can be very expensive, especially if the trademark will apply to several different classes that each require an application fee
  • Increases the amount of legal bureaucracy your business will have to regularly navigate
  • Will not work for business with generic/localized names and is less useful for businesses that operate within the state-level

A registered trademark can be worth it

A trademark is much more than a fancy symbol attached to your name—it’s a shield protecting your brand from misrepresentation. While you have some trademark rights without filing a single sheet of paper, the best protection comes from a registered trademark. But if you’re unsure whether registering is worth the trouble, weigh your risk of IP infringement against your budget, both for applying and for pursuing legal action when your trademark needs to be enforced.

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