Trademarks 101: What They Are and Why They Need Protecting

A trademark helps differentiate your middle market company's goods and services from anyone else's. You can trademark your company name, its logo, its product names and its slogan. If a new company enters the market, it cannot use the names or symbols of an existing company in that same market without violating the senior company's trademarks. They represent legally protected rights and allow for exclusive use so that when any company invests in its brand equity, no other company can steal it.

It's a best legal practice to protect your brand with trademarks.

What Are Trademarks?

Trademarked materials clearly distinguish one company from another in a similar market and thus help avoid consumer confusion. With that concept in mind, you might see a company calling itself "Clif Bar Engineering." As long as this company helps construct buildings and stays away from making energy bars, there'd be no trademark confusion in the market and no lawsuits initiated by Clif Bar & Company, the California-based midmarket company. However, if Clif Bar Engineering switched to making energy bars instead of buildings, it might soon receive a cease-and-desist letter from Clif Bar's lawyers asking it to stop using a name that infringed on a long-standing trademark.

When your middle market firm is looking for a new trademark, whether it's for a new offering, a new slogan or a new company name, it's best to hire marketing professionals who can research which names are already in use and which are available. Sometimes the best names are completely new words rather than existing ones. You would not be able to use common words like "wheat and honey" to trademark a bread product, for example, but a fabricated word like "HonWheetsy" might be able to be legally trademarked. Again, hire marketing experts and work closely with them to define the names, slogans and logos you want to trademark.

One more thing: A trademark can become protected by law through continuous and open use of said trademark. Thus, if you can show that you started openly and consistently using the trademark before anyone else, you will have legally recognized rights to its exclusive use. However, if your use was disrupted for a time period or was otherwise not conspicuous, you could face a challenge proving and protecting your rights. It's therefore recommended, as is the case in this article from The Wall Street Journal, to register your trademark by way of the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office. This is the most straightforward, hassle-free way to protect yourself against copycats.

What Is Intellectual Property?

Trademarks fall under the broader category of intellectual property (IP). Also included under IP are patents of inventions and technologies, as well as copyrights of artistic and creative works. Intellectual property law allows companies to develop and exclusively license software and allows authors to generate money from novels and movies.

Patents on inventions such as the telephone and iPhone helped build huge U.S. industries, and because of this the American government, American companies and U.S. trade associations work hard globally to protect the fruits of American innovation. While IP is generally respected within the United States, that's not always the case overseas. Companies must remain vigilant in protecting their revenue-generating IP and work with the U.S. government and foreign law in having their IP rights respected internationally. Pirates operate everywhere these days, not just in the open seas. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, software piracy alone has cost U.S. companies hundreds of billions of dollars in losses. IP remains a major source of American competitiveness, and the fight to protect U.S. IP will doubtless continue despite big global challenges.

What kinds of trademark protection does your middle market company currently have? Have your trademarks ever been challenged? In what ways have you responded? Let us know by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.


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