Understanding Trademarks: What Does Trademark Mean & Why It Matters

12 minutes

Table of Contents

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Andrew Rapacke is a registered patent attorney and serves as Managing Partner at The Rapacke Law Group, a full service intellectual property law firm.
What Does Trademark Mean

What does trademark mean and why it matters is a question at the heart of building a unique and legally protected brand identity. The concept of a trademark is not just a legal formality—it’s the secret sauce that gives a brand its flavor, setting it apart in a sea of competitors. Imagine walking into a world where every brand looks the same, sounds the same, and offers the same promises—utterly confusing, right? That’s where trademarks come in, like superheroes for businesses, swooping in to rescue them from the abyss of anonymity.

In this article, we’re diving into the exciting universe of trademarks, exploring their definition, their critical role in the business cosmos, and offering a sneak peek into the journey of registering trademarks and protecting your very own trademark. So buckle up, because we’re about to take off into a realm where symbols and names become the legends of commerce!

What’s Inside This Guide?

  • Uncover the magic of trademarks and their ability to transform your brand’s presence and recognition in the consumer world.
  • Delve into the intricacies of trademark protection and learn why the choice of your mark can have a profound influence on your brand’s legal shield and standing in the market.
  • Understand the trademark registration process and the essential steps to safeguard your brand and ensure its long-term protection.
  • Learn how to guard your brand against unauthorized use and the dangers of becoming too generic, thus protecting your brand identity.

What Does Trademark Mean – Deciphering the Term “Trademark”

According to the U.S Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), a trademark can be any word, phrase, symbol, design or combination of these elements that distinguishes the origin of goods or services. Trademarks go beyond just brand names and logos. They can also include colors, sounds, and smells that represent a company’s distinct identity.

Trademarks are an important aspect of intellectual property as they serve to differentiate brands in competitive industries. These distinctive signs such as McDonald’s golden arches or Nike’s swoosh evoke immediate recognition from consumers. It should be noted that trademarks cover more than just visual aspects. They encompass all elements capable of identifying where a particular good or service comes from.

As part of a business’ intellectual property portfolio, trademarks play a crucial role in distinguishing brands and serving as valuable tools in today’s highly competitive marketplace. The key element of a trademark is its ability to identify the source of goods and services among others.

These days, even iconic phrases like “Just Do It” from Nike or words such as “Google” are part of our everyday lexicon and are trademarked, immediately signaling their source. Similarly, the distinctive sound of the MGM lion’s roar or the scent of Play-Doh, which is specifically trademarked for its “sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough,” all fall under the broad spectrum of trademark protection.

The Spectrum of Trademark Strength

Not all trademarks possess the same level of strength. The degree to which a trademark is unique and associated with a specific product or service determines its inherent power. Trademarks that are fanciful, arbitrary, or suggestive are considered the strongest type. For example, ‘Apple’ for computers falls under an arbitrary trademark while ‘Microsoft’ for software is categorized as suggestive. These types of trademarks carry high levels of protection due to their distinctiveness.

On the other hand, descriptive and generic trademarks lie on the weaker end of this spectrum. Descriptive trademarks simply describe a product or service while generic ones refer to common words used for entire categories of products. These types of trademarks lack distinctiveness and are thus are not easily registered unless they gain secondary meaning over time.  For instance, ’Sharp’ for televisions, a formerly descriptive term relating to the quality of the television picture, has acquired secondary meaning over years in order to obtain registration status.

Strong intellectual property protection enhances a brand’s legal defense and market appeal. A distinctive brand name not only differentiates a business but also supports its operations and increases its resilience against counterfeiting. However, to reap these benefits, it is crucial for businesses to actively use their trademarks and maintain their registrations. Without these measures, a brand’s ability to capitalize on market opportunities may diminish.

Trademark Registration: The Path to Exclusive Rights

The process of obtaining a trademark involves several crucial steps to secure exclusive rights. This begins with preparing an application that meets all the necessary USPTO criteria, including determining its filing basis and conducting initial searches. The USPTO then conducts a thorough examination before granting federal trademark registration.

But securing your trademarks exclusivity does not end there. To maintain ongoing protection, it is important to actively use the trademark in commerce and regularly renew it. Vigilant efforts must be made to prevent infringement or genericization so as to safeguard against unauthorized usage.

The procedure for registering a federal trademark emphasizes the importance of acquiring ownership over one’s commercial use of their registered mark, distinguishing their products from others, and protecting their brand from any unlawful exploitation, all while adhering strictly to relevant laws governing trademarks.

Preparing Your Trademark Application

The process of preparing a trademark application may seem intimidating, but it can be simplified by following these steps. The first step is to make sure that your proposed trademark really stands out and is intended to represent the goods or services associated with it. Next, compile a broad list of the goods or services that are linked to the trademark. It’s important for these descriptions to match those in the ‘Acceptable Identification of Goods and Services Manual’ (ID Manual) for proper reference to ensure a cheaper filing fee.

Following this guide will ensure smooth preparation of your trademark application. Once you have collected all necessary information, there is a filing fee required which currently amounts to $250 per class for the TEAS Plus application or $350 per class for the TEAS Standard application.

In order to avoid common errors during this procedure, it’s imperative that applicants pay attention to details including ownership, trademark name and spelling, and conducting a comprehensive clearance search beforehand, to identify any potential conflicts.

Navigating the Examination Process

Upon submission of your trademark application, it will be carefully examined by a USPTO examining attorney. This examination involves an extensive review and search for any conflicting marks, as well as an evaluation of the application details, drawings, and supporting specimens.

In case the examiner identifies any issues or legal objections with your application, they will issue what is known as an office action. An office action is a formal document outlining an examiners concern that the applicant must address to keep the application moving forward. It is crucial to provide a written response addressing all the raised issues or objections in order to ensure successful completion of the trademark registration process.

Maintaining Your Trademark

Registering a trademark is only the first step in safeguarding its value – consistent efforts must be made to maintain it. It is crucial to actively use the trademark in commerce and regularly renew it for continued protection. In the United States, renewal takes place between the 5th and 6th year, the 9th and 10th year, and then every 10 years thereafter.

Simply using a trademark does not guarantee its safety from infringement or becoming genericized. Constant vigilance against misuse and taking legal action when necessary are essential for preserving exclusive ownership rights of trademarks. In certain situations, seeking guidance from an intellectual property attorney may also be beneficial during such legal processes.

Intellectual Property Protection: Beyond the Trademark Office

Intellectual property protection is crucial for businesses to safeguard their identity, but it’s not limited to trademarks. Other forms of intellectual property rights include patents and copyrights, which respectively protect inventions and creative works. It’s important for companies to understand these different types of protections in order to effectively secure their assets.

Each form of intellectual property protection serves a specific purpose depending on the nature of the asset being protected. For example:

  • Patents are used when seeking legal cover for an invention or technology such as a new sneaker sole.
  • Copyrights come into play if one wants rights over original written material like novels or plays.
  • On the other hand, trademarks serve as means for protecting business names or logos associated with brands.

Having a good understanding of these variations is essential in selecting the appropriate type of intellectual property protection that best suits your needs.

Trademarks vs. Other Forms of IP: Understanding the Differences

Having a clear understanding of the distinctions between trademarks, copyrights, and patents can assist in selecting the most appropriate safeguard for one’s intellectual property. As previously explained:

  • Trademarks provide protection for a brand’s identity, such as its name, logo, and/or slogan.
  • Copyrights guard original works of authorship like books, music, and films.
  • Patents specifically protect new inventions or discoveries that provide a new way of doing something, or offer a new technical solution to a problem. This protection allows the patent holder to legally exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention for the duration of the patent’s 20-year term.

For example, let us consider Nike’s Swoosh. The design itself is recognized as an identifier of Nike products and falls under trademark protection. If Nike comes up with a new technology specifically designed for their shoes, then that innovation would be covered by patent law. Similarly, any creative elements found within advertisements created by Nike would also be protected through copyright laws.  This illustrates how each type of intellectual property serves different purposes in preserving various aspects related to business operations.

The Role of Trademark Symbols: TM, SM, and ®

If you’ve ever noticed symbols like TM, SM, or ® next to a brand name or logo and wondered what they mean, then you have encountered trademark symbols. These play an important role in the field of trademark law.

The symbol TM is used for unregistered trademarks while SM indicates that it is a service mark instead of a product-related one. The registered symbol (®) signifies that the mark has been federally registered as a trademark.

These symbols provide crucial information about the status of trademarks and service marks.  When using the common-law system without federal registration with USPTO, businesses can use TM.  To represent services rather than goods through their marks, companies should opt for SM.  The ® sign can only be used when a trademark is federally registered with the USPTO and is in good standing.

International Trademark Considerations

Understanding international trademark registration is crucial for businesses with operations in multiple countries. The European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) and the Madrid Protocol are options available for those seeking to gain protection across several nations through a single application.

International registration offers many benefits such as cost-effectiveness by eliminating the need for numerous national or regional applications and providing extensive trademark protection worldwide. It can be a complex process that involves submitting an application through the Madrid Protocol to one’s home office of origin. Thus, consulting with an experienced trademark attorney well-versed in international registration may prove advantageous.

Trademark Misconceptions Debunked

Misconceptions surrounding trademarks can result in costly mistakes. One common myth is that small businesses do not require registration for their trademarks. All trademarks, regardless of business size, should be registered to ensure adequate protection. It’s important to understand the distinctions between an unregistered trademark and registered trademarks as well as the protections each provides.

Another misconception is that ownership of a domain name automatically establishes trademark rights. This is incorrect because simply owning a domain name does not equate to having trademark ownership. In order to establish such rights, one must use the mark in commerce for identifying goods or services rather than just owning a website address.

Adding to these misconceptions is the belief that once a trademark is registered in one country, it is protected globally. However, trademarks are territorial and rights associated with them are generally only enforceable in the country of registration. International trademark protection requires separate registrations, often through treaties like the Madrid Protocol.

Similarly, there’s a common misunderstanding that a trademark guarantees a business’s exclusive rights to use a word in all contexts. In reality, trademark protection is limited to specific categories of goods and services and does not prevent others from using the word in unrelated industries or in a descriptive or non-trademark manner.

Furthermore, some believe that the USPTO’s approval of a trademark application is an endorsement of a business’s exclusive right to use the mark. It’s crucial to understand that the USPTO’s role is to register trademarks, not to enforce them. Enforcement of trademark rights is up to the trademark owner, who must monitor and take action against any unauthorized use of their mark.

Lastly, it’s a common fallacy that a trademark is an absolute barrier to competition. While a trademark does provide legal protection against competitors using similar marks, it does not prevent others from competing in the same space with different trademarks. The purpose of a trademark is to prevent confusion among consumers, not to create a monopoly over products or services.

Real-World Examples of Trademark Use

Trademarks are omnipresent in our daily lives, serving as the silent ambassadors of countless brands across diverse industries. They come in various forms, such as word marks, phrase marks, logo marks, and more.

In the fashion industry, the stylized “LV” monogram is synonymous with the luxury brand Louis Vuitton, while the sports world instantly recognizes Nike’s “Just Do It” as a motivational catchphrase. Apple Inc. is represented not only by its bitten apple logo but also by its minimalist product design and distinctive retail store layouts, all protected under trademark law.

The food and beverage sector offers a smorgasbord of trademarks, such as McDonald’s golden arches, which promise a familiar dining experience worldwide. Coca-Cola’s flowing script is a registered trademark that has become iconic over time.

Automotive companies also rely heavily on trademarks to differentiate their offerings. The roaring jaguar on the hood of Jaguar cars and the unmistakable Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star are not just logos; they’re symbols of prestige and engineering excellence.

Even in technology and entertainment, trademarks are crucial. The term “Google” has become synonymous with online search, and the Windows operating system from Microsoft uses both a name and a graphic window pane as a trademark. The “Netflix” name is a proprietary eponym for streaming services, and its distinct soundmark that plays at the beginning of its productions is also trademarked.

These examples illustrate the vast array of trademarks in the market, each serving as a legal protector of the brand’s identity and a signal of trust and quality to the consumer. They are not just marketing tools but valuable intellectual property assets that require careful management and legal protection.

Legal Insights: Consulting a Trademark Attorney

Navigating the waters of trademark registration can be daunting, but with the help of a skilled trademark attorney, the voyage becomes much smoother. These legal experts bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table, guiding you through the complexities of trademark law and ensuring that your intellectual property is well-protected.

Choosing the right attorney is critical—they should have a solid educational foundation in law, specific experience in the field of trademarks, and the appropriate licensing. The right attorney will dedicate ample time to craft a thorough trademark application, which is pivotal for a successful registration.

Beyond the initial application, a trademark attorney is your advocate in the event of an infringement, representing your interests before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and federal court in any legal disputes that may arise.

To set ourselves apart and provide you with peace of mind, we offer The RLG Guarantee. This exclusive guarantee includes:

  • A full refund if your trademark application is denied, offering you a risk-free process ($1,750 Value).
  • A comprehensive trademark conflict search to assess the availability of your mark ($500 Value).
  • An attorney-led trademark application to ensure professional preparation and submission ($1,350 Value).
  • Unlimited responses to USPTO office actions, which can be invaluable if any issues arise ($2,000+ Value).
  • Filing of your trademark application by our team, managing the paperwork on your behalf ($350 Value).
  • Coverage of USPTO filing fees for your application, so there are no surprises ($275 Value).

If your first choice of trademark encounters any issues, we will conduct additional searches at no extra cost or issue a full refund if that’s your preference. This comprehensive guarantee is our way of demonstrating our commitment to your trademark’s success. Learn more about The RLG Guarantee and how it can benefit your trademark registration process here.


In this article, we’ve unpacked the multifaceted world of trademarks. To ensure clarity, even for those who may not have read the entire piece, here are the key takeaways with additional details:

  • What is a Trademark?: Explained that a trademark includes any word, phrase, symbol, or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of goods or services. It’s the unique signature of a brand in the marketplace.
  • Trademark Strength Levels: Discussed how the uniqueness of a trademark determines its strength and legal protection, with fanciful or arbitrary marks being the strongest, while descriptive or generic marks are the weakest.
  • Trademark Registration Process: Outlined the steps for registering a trademark, from application to examination by the USPTO, highlighting the importance of this process for establishing legal rights and brand security.
  • Debunking Trademark Myths: Addressed common misconceptions, such as the belief that trademark registration is not necessary for small businesses or that a domain name provides trademark rights, clarifying the actual facts.

For anyone involved in branding or business, it’s critical to grasp these concepts to effectively safeguard your brand. Prompt action in protecting your brand’s trademarks is a strategic move for the longevity and success of your business.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean if something is trademarked?

A trademark is a unique word, symbol, or phrase that sets a company’s products or services apart from those of others. It allows customers to identify and separate the originator of the trademark identifies the product or service.

Does trademark mean copyright?

Trademark and copyright are not interchangeable terms. While copyright safeguards the unique artistic elements of a creation, trademark serves to be a source-identifier for consumers.

What exactly is a trademark?

A trademark is a unique word, phrase, symbol, design or any combination that signifies the source of goods or services. It sets apart the products offered by one seller from those provided by others in the market.

What factors determine the strength of a trademark?

The effectiveness of a trademark relies on two main factors: its distinctiveness and the level of association it has with a specific product or service. These elements are pivotal in determining the strength of a trademark.

What steps are involved in the trademark registration process?

The process of registering a trademark involves the preparation and submission of an application, followed by an examination conducted by the USPTO. It is also important to maintain the validity and protection of the registered trademark once it has been registered.

How long does it take to get a trademark?

The time it takes to obtain a trademark can vary significantly depending on various factors, such as the complexity of the application, the trademark’s distinctiveness, and any legal issues that may arise during the examination process. Generally, after an application is filed, the USPTO’s initial review can take about 3 to 6 months. If there are no objections or oppositions, the entire process from application to registration typically takes around 8 to 12 months. However, if the application encounters issues such as office actions or oppositions, the process can extend beyond a year. It’s also important to note that even after registration, the trademark must be actively used and maintained to ensure ongoing protection.

Do logos and brand names need to be trademarked separately?

Yes, logos and company names are considered distinct elements and can be trademarked separately. A company name is the official name under which a company does business, while a logo is a visual symbol that represents the brand. Trademarking both provides broader protection as it prevents others from using either the name or the logo, or any confusingly similar variations, in connection with their goods or services. It’s worth noting that while a company might have its name trademarked, if they develop a unique logo later, they would need to go through the trademark process again for the logo to ensure it is also protected.

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