businessIn the first part of the sereis, we began tackling the questions posed by the attendees of our recent SCORE webinar, "IP 101." Today, we'll delve even deeper into the many queeries posed by the audience.

As a small business owner providing services, how important is it for me to have a a trademark? And at what stage of my business do I need to register a trademark?

For a business, the purpose of a trademark is to prevent others from using the same name, logo, or service mark. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants trademarks to businesses to try and protect consumers from impostors. When you purchase a product or service under a particular brand name, there is a guarantee of getting what you paid for, rather than a knock-off. That being said, not all names can be trademarked, and in order to receive a federal trademark you have to be operating across multiple states. Using TM on your mark as a common-law trademark is a good start, especially for businesses just getting off the ground; you can always file for a federal trademark when you need and can afford it.

Do logos require TM or other markings? How do I protect logo designs I create or have created on my behalf?

Logos can be protected by trademark and copyright by the owner. Often owners will ask the designer to place a TM on the design as a "common law" trademark before filing for a federal trademark. However, you can't place a ® on your logo without having filed and received a federal trademark, so be careful with how you mark your logo initially.

Also, if the logo you've created is work done for a client, be sure to know what rights you're going to give to them. Many clients will ask for the transfer of all IP ownership rights as part of the contract and then ask for a TM or ® to be inserted for their benefit. Conversely, if you're paying to have someone create a logo for you, make sure you've read and understood your contract or seek legal help to ensure that IP ownership rights are going to be transferred to you.

How do I protect the branding for my company?

In order to protect your company's branding, make sure that you have ownership of any material that was created for you by people outside your company. To do this, read your contracts and make sure that any rights for materials created for you, such as your website, logo, or taglines, are transferred to your entity upon completion of the work. Once you have these items and their respective rights, you can consider trademark and copyright protection; remember, you can use TM on your branding without having to register it.

How do you qualify to use circle R in terms of your business' location?

You can use TM as a common-law trademark without having to register, but using ® requires a federal registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In order to apply for federal registration, you have to operate and sell across state lines. So if your business is operating in a single city and you never sell outside of a 100-mile radius (and don't plan to expand), then you most likely can't apply for a federal trademark.

Is it difficult to legally protect common law trademarks and copyrights?

You have copyright once you've expressed your creation into a medium, and trademark once you start using it, so it is realtively easy to mark your works with a © or TM. It's generally a good business practice to keep time-stamped records of your creation of copyrighted material as well as a specimen of first use similarly time-stamped if possible. With that time stamp, you can prove when you created an item or started using a mark. If you're looking for digital time-stamping, may I just drop another plug for the IP Vault? It's still free. 

Check back next week to see more of your burning IP questions answered!

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