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A Beginner's Guide to Trademarks

Companies use trademarks to identify either the company itself or the goods and/or services it offers. Trademarks are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which provides legal protection for words, designs, logos, colors, or symbols used for identification. Over time, consumers learn to recognize and distinguish a trademark as a unique representation of a company. Companies register their trademarks to protect themselves from competitors infringing on their intellectual property.

History of Trademarks

Some of the earliest trademarks were developed in China in ancient times, when potters added their names and their locations to their pieces. In ancient Egypt, crafters included images and signs on products to help identify their origin. In the United States, President Thomas Jefferson was among the first to work for the protection of trademarks. It wasn't until 1881 that a law governing the registration of trademarks went into effect, and the USPTO was officially established in 1905.

Scope of Protection Offered by a Trademark

Companies connect trademarks with specific products and services sold to consumers. By clearly defining the products or services connected to trademarks, companies identify the scope of their use. This prevents other companies from using the same or similar trademark for similar products and services without the express permission of the trademark holder. This is known as trademark infringement.

Types of Trademarks

The USPTO requires trademarks to be unique enough to eliminate the possibility of confusion with other brands. Different categories have been created based on the strength and uniqueness of these trademarks.

Fanciful marks are unique in nature, often involving made-up words and symbols that describe a brand. Due to their unique nature, fanciful marks have the lowest risk for similarity with other existing trademarks, and they are the easiest trademarks to register.

Arbitrary marks include established words, but the use of the word or words is different from their generally associated meaning. Arbitrary marks don't directly describe a service or product, and they are often easier for consumers to remember because they are established words.

Suggestive marks will often imply what a product or service does, but this is not specifically communicated.

Descriptive marks involve names or logos that describe the product or service. It's common for descriptive marks to overlap with other established trademarks, so it may be difficult to register these trademarks with the USPTO.

Generic trademarks are ones that have become generic terms for an entire group of similar products and can no longer be protected by trademark law. For example, words such as "escalator," "laundromat," and "trampoline" all started out as trademarked product names.

Qualifications for U.S. Trademarks

Distinctive brand names that are unlike other names are eligible for registration as a trademark. Unique and distinguishable symbols and images used as logos for businesses can be trademarked as well. A company that uses specific colors as a distinguishing element to identify a product in the marketplace may be able to trademark the color or colors as well. Slogans used for commercial purposes can be trademarked, too.

Symbols of Trademarks

Trademarks are indicated using trademark symbols. These symbols help consumers and competitors know that a trademark has been claimed. Trademarked goods are indicated by "TM," and trademarked services are indicated by "SM." Companies can use these symbols even if they have not filed an application for registration of a trademark. After registering a trademark, the symbol of an R with a circle around it indicates that a trademark has been registered.