How to Protect Your Brand – Before You Have Nothing to Protect

Nina KaufmanArticles, Leverage Your Time3 Comments

What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare.

I often wonder what celebrities are thinking when they name their kids Tu (Morrow), Moon Unit (Zappa), or North (West, of Kardashian-West fame). Or not thinking. Somehow, they latch on to an idea … which may have been hilarious after a few too many 3rd trimester appletinis … and it sticks. They can’t see reason. Like, what would it be like to be the 9-year-old having to answer to, “Pilot Inspektor? Is Pilot Inspektor here?” in homeroom. They fall in love with the name and can’t let go.

Trademark-symbolI’ve seen this happen with small businesses, too. They come up with a great business idea and a trademark/tagline that they fall in love with. Then, one of two things happens:

  • They think that simply because they’ve conceived it, no one else can use it. OR
  • They rush to trademark it, only to find that it’s not protectable.

Can you imagine having to come up with another name for your child? Especially after calling her by that name for years on end (and investing a lot of money in the name)? Tough, right?

Intellectual property—and your trademarks—can become a vital and lucrative part of your business. But only if they have value. Consider these steps to reap the rewards of your hard work:

  1. Ensure your trademark can be protected. If someone else has already registered that trademark – or one that is very similar – you may not be able to use it.
  2. Do a comprehensive search. Checking with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is not enough. That database only covers applications filed and registered with that office. Plus, the search may cover only exact marks … and the USPTO can bounce your application because of confusion with similar marks. Make a comprehensive search for any trademarks that are similar to yours.
  3. Just because you have the URL doesn’t mean you have the rights to the trademark. Don’t just rely on a domain name search. Just because a domain name is available doesn’t mean the trademark is.
  4. Don’t be obvious. You can’t use a generic name as your trademark. Marketing your new clothing line using the trademark “Clothes” won’t work – the Trademark Office would never let it be registered. It has to be a unique and distinctive.
  5. Once cleared, take action. No one will protect your trademark for you. It’s not the USPTO’s responsibility to ensure no one else uses your trademark in the marketplace. If you don’t keep a close tabs on this, you could lose the rights to your mark. Monitor the market for anyone infringing on your trademark.

Tip: Your brand is your brain-child. Be proactive in protecting it as you would your human children. Enlist the experts to make sure it’s done right the first time.

3 Comments on “How to Protect Your Brand – Before You Have Nothing to Protect”

  1. This is great advice for existing businesses who have established products or services, Nina. I work with many start-ups and have to caution any of your readers who might be start-ups: focus first on building a MVP (most viable product) before investing too much time and energy on “protecting” intellectual property such as a trade or service mark. Use your operating budget to generate income from your MVP. When you have earned about $2K (depending on your product, service, industry, etc.), you likely have a marketable good you can sell and that is worth investing a bit more in. At that point, you can choose to put that money back into the business by registering your intellectual property (“IP”) and announcing your claim for ownership.

    When determining whether a start-up needs to focus on IP protection in the early phases, I tend to distinguish between IP, such as patents and copyrights on the MVP, and trademarks, service marks, logos, taglines, or other marketing tools. If it’s not the thing that is making you money, don’t get attached (like the parents in Nina’s article) to the name or logo. If you build something people want to buy, you can name it whatever you want. But if you build nothing of commercial value, even a great name or logo will fail to get you sales that sustain your business.

    1. Great question, Manuel. What steps did you take to copyright it? There’s more to it than placing the (C) [date] [your company name] at the footer of your home page.

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