What is Trademarking? A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Brand

15 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 Is Trademarking?

Understanding what is trademarking is essential for protecting your brand’s identity and reputation. Trademarking involves legally registering a unique symbol, word, or design that distinguishes your products or services from others in the market. This process not only safeguards your brand but also enhances its recognition and value.

When you hear ‘swoosh,’ you think of Nike; when you see the golden arches, McDonald’s comes to mind. Trademarks are powerful tools that create brand recognition and fend off unauthorized use by competitors or copycats. This article demystifies the trademarking process, exploring why it’s valuable, what it protects, and how you can obtain and maintain a trademark for your business.

Key Takeaways

  • Trademarks are crucial for distinguishing a brand and serve as legal protection against infringement.  However, having a registered trademark does not guarantee absolute exclusivity against all uses of similar marks.
  • The trademark registration process involves preparation, searching existing trademarks in TESS, submitting applications via TEAS (including international via TEASi), timeline expectations, and costs including the initial filing fee of $250 per class.
  • Registered trademarks offer exclusive rights in their class, can last indefinitely with renewals, require ongoing commercial use and enforcement, and utilize ® for registered marks to signify trademark claims.

What Is Trademarking? The Basics

The reality is that nearly every business needs at least one trademark to build and protect its brand.  The purpose of registering you trademark is to identify the source of your services or goods, provide legal protection for your brand, and help guard against counterfeiting and fraud. Failure to register your trademark means you are not fully protected and your brand may be in jeopardy. 

A trademark is a legally registered symbol, word, or combination of words and symbols that identifies and distinguishes a product, service, or company from others. Trademarks are a form of intellectual property and serve to protect the brand identity and reputation of a business. They can take various forms, including:

  1. Words: This includes brand names, slogans, and other verbal symbols. For example, “Nike” owns a variety of trademarks to protect their name, logos, and slogans.
  2. Logos and Symbols: These are graphical representations unique to a brand, such as the Apple logo.
  3. Combination Marks: A combination of words and logos or symbols, like the Nike swoosh and the word “Nike.”
  4. Colors and Sounds: Some trademarks are based on specific colors or sounds. For instance, the distinctive shade of brown used by UPS is trademarked, and the Intel jingle is a trademarked sound.

Trademarks serve several important functions:

  1. Brand Recognition: They help consumers identify and distinguish products or services from one company as compared to those of others.
  2. Brand Protection: Trademarks provide legal protection to the brand owner, allowing them to prevent others from using a confusingly similar mark, which could dilute the brand’s distinctiveness or cause consumer confusion.
  3. Quality Assurance: Trademarks can convey a sense of quality and consistency associated with the brand, as consumers may have certain expectations when they see a known trademark.
  4. Asset Value: Trademarks can be valuable assets for a business. They can be licensed, sold, or used as collateral for loans.

To establish and protect a trademark, a person or company typically needs to register it with the relevant government authority, such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in the United States. This registration provides legal rights and protection for the trademark. Trademarks are usually subject to renewal and protection, which requires actively defending against unauthorized use by others.

It’s important to note that trademark laws and regulations can vary from one country to another, so it’s essential for businesses to understand and comply with the rules and requirements in their respective jurisdictions.  Additionally, registering a trademark does not mean you legally own the word or phrase. Other business owners may be able to use the word/phrase you’ve trademarked without violating the law, depending on the circumstances. Lean on our trademark attorneys for guidance; we’ll do everything possible to enforce your legal protections and safeguard your intellectual property.

Understanding the Importance of Trademarks: What Is Trademarking

Trademarks are crucial in creating brand identity, offering enduring value that captures consumer loyalty. In an environment saturated with competing brands vying for attention, having a trademark is what sets your brand apart.

Beyond facilitating recognition, registering trademarks can also offer defenses against the risks of infringement and damage to reputation while providing customers with assurances regarding the quality associated with your brand. It’s important to realize that obtaining trademark registration does not guarantee absolute exclusivity. Under specific circumstances, third parties may legally use the same terms or expressions without infringing on your rights. 

Types of Trademarks

Various types of trademarks and service marks exist, each serving a unique purpose in brand distinction and legal protection. Arbitrary and Fanciful Trademarks, Suggestive Trademarks, Descriptive Trademarks, and Service Marks (SM) differ in terms of distinctiveness and scope. Fanciful or arbitrary trademarks are inherently distinctive and thus offer the most robust protection; examples include ‘Apple’ for electronics and ‘Nike’ for athletic wear, where ordinary words are repurposed and unconnected to the products or services provided.

Service Marks are akin to trademarks but specifically identify and protect services rather than other goods or services. It is important to note that a service mark is still a trademark and utilizes the ® registration symbol once registered.  For instance, a cleaning service might use a unique name or logo as its service mark, distinguishing its offerings from competitors in the marketplace.

Trademark Registration Process

Why is this process worth your time and investment? A trademark is more than a legal formality; it’s a signal to the world of your brand’s authenticity and distinctiveness. It’s an emblem of your business’s reputation and quality that you can wield to distinguish your products or services in a crowded marketplace. By navigating the trademark registration process with diligence, you’re not just safeguarding a name or a unique logo either; you’re anchoring your brand in the consciousness of consumers and securing a competitive edge that can last indefinitely.

Recognizing the importance of a solid foundation, The Rapacke Law Group offers a guaranteed trademark service that includes an exhaustive clearance search and an accurately drafted trademark application. If your trademark application is ultimately rejected, their 100% refund policy provides a safety net, underscoring the value they place on your brand’s protection.

What Are the Requirements for a Trademark?

Here are the fundamental requirements for a trademark:

  1. Distinctiveness: To be eligible for trademark protection, a mark must be distinctive, meaning it must be capable of distinguishing the goods or services of one entity from those of others. Distinctiveness is a key to consider when evaluating trademark applications. Distinctive marks are typically categorized into the following groups:
  1. Fanciful marks: Invented words or terms with no preexisting meaning, such as “Xerox” for photocopiers.
  2. Arbitrary marks: Existing words used in a context unrelated to the product or service, like “Apple” for computers.
  3. Suggestive marks: Marks that suggest or imply something about the product or service but do not directly describe it, such as “Microsoft” for software.
  4. Descriptive marks: Marks that describe the product or service, like “American Airlines” for an airline company. Descriptive marks may receive protection if they acquire secondary meaning through long-term use.
  5. Use in Commerce: A trademark must be used in commerce to be eligible for registration and to maintain protection. The use requirement typically means that the trademark must be affixed to the goods or used in connection with the services for which it is registered.  Even if your trademark is not in use, it is advisable that you still file a trademark application under a 1b status. Once through the registration phase, you will need to submit a Notice of Allowance showing use.  However, you do not need to wait until you have actual use to file a trademark application.
  6. Non-Offensiveness: Trademarks that are offensive or scandalous may be refused registration. The USPTO typically does not grant protection to marks that are contrary to public policy or morality.
  7. Non-Deceptiveness: A trademark should not be deceptive or misleading. It should not falsely describe the nature, quality, or origin of the goods or services.
  8. Registrability: Certain marks, such as generic terms (common names for goods or services), cannot be registered as trademarks because they lack distinctiveness. Descriptive marks may be registrable if they have acquired secondary meaning through use.
  9. Application: To obtain trademark protection, you need to file a trademark application with the relevant trademark office in your country or jurisdiction. The application should include information about the mark, its use, and the goods or services it represents.
  10. Registration and Renewal: If your trademark application is approved, you will need to continue to pay registration fees.
  11. Defensive Use: Trademark owners are generally expected to actively protect and enforce their marks against unauthorized use by others to maintain the trademark’s strength and validity.

Searching for Existing Trademarks

Before starting, it’s essential to ensure that you are not infringing on any existing trademarks. The Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS), made available by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), serves as a vital tool for conducting clearance searches for pre-existing trademarks to help avoid potential conflicts.

Here are a few tips for conducting a basic trademark clearance search:

  1. Identify the Jurisdictions of Interest: Determine the countries or regions where you intend to use and register your trademark. Trademarks are territorial, so you should focus on the jurisdictions relevant to your business.
  2. Online Database Searches:
  1. USPTO (United States): In the United States, you can use the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) online database. The “TESS” (Trademark Electronic Search System) allows you to search for registered and pending trademarks. You can visit the USPTO website and use their search tool.
  2. WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization): For international trademarks under the Madrid Protocol, you can search the Global Brand Database provided by WIPO. This database includes trademarks from multiple countries.
  3. Local Trademark Offices: Many countries have their own online databases for searching trademarks. For example, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) has a database for searching EU trademarks.
  • Search Variations: When conducting the search, consider variations of your trademark, including plurals, different spellings, synonyms, and phonetic variations.
  • Use Classifications: Trademarks are registered for specific classes of goods and services. Be sure to search for your trademark within the classes that are relevant to your business.
  • Review the Results: Examine the search results for any trademark that is identical or similar to yours and cover related goods or services. Pay attention to any live (currently registered) trademarks that could pose a conflict.  Remember, goods and services do not have to be in the same International Class to be considered related.
  • Assess Conflicts: If you find similar or conflicting trademarks, evaluate whether they could potentially infringe on your use of the mark or if your use might infringe on their existing rights.

Remember that conducting a thorough trademark search is the most important step in the trademark registration process. While you can perform a basic search on your own, professional search services and trademark attorneys often have access to more extensive and specialized databases to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the search results. If you’re serious about protecting your trademark, it’s advisable to consult with a trademark professional to ensure that your mark is available for use and registration.

Preparing and Submitting the Application

After verifying that the trademark you want is not already taken, you can move forward with preparing and filing your application. If you also want to secure international protection for your trademark, it’s crucial to utilize the Trademark Electronic Application System International (TEASi).

If there is a USPTO system outage, rest assured other submission methods are available that enable adherence to critical deadlines.

Responding to Office Actions

Navigating through the trademark registration process does not always come without hurdles or unexpected challenges such as an office action or suspension notice.  Most commonly, an Office Action is an official document issued by a USPTO examining attorney providing grounds and reasoning for rejecting your application.  The most common grounds for an office action rejection include a likelihood of confusion with another trademark, descriptive or genericness of your trademark, ornamental or functional issues, or disclaimers.  The Office Action will provide you with a specified period (typically 3 months) to respond and address the issues raised. 

When you receive an Office Action, it’s essential to respond promptly and thoroughly. Failing to provide a complete response may result in the abandonment of your application. Once you have thoroughly reviewed all the grounds for rejection it’s important to gather all the evidence necessary to provide a complete response or modify the existing application. Remember, an Office Action is not the end of the road—it’s an opportunity to clarify and strengthen your trademark application. With the right approach, you can overcome the hurdles and secure the protection your brand deserves.

While this task may seem daunting, all office action responses, communications with the USPTO Examiner, or modifications are built into our money-back RLG Guarantee, ensuring you will get to publication or receive a full refund. 

Timeline and Costs

The cost of obtaining and maintaining a trademark can vary significantly depending on various factors, including the jurisdiction, the complexity of the trademark application, the services you use, and whether you choose to hire legal assistance. Here’s a breakdown of some common costs associated with trademarks:

  1. Trademark Search: Before applying for a trademark, it’s advisable to conduct a trademark search to check for potential conflicts with existing trademarks. While there are free online search tools, it is advisable to hire a professional.
  2. Trademark Application Fee: The cost of filing a trademark application varies.  In the United States, the filing fees are $250 or $350 per class of goods or services.
  3. Attorney’s Fees: Many individuals and businesses choose to work with a trademark attorney to prepare and file their trademark application. Attorney fees vary widely but may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the complexity of the application and the services provided.
  4. Office Actions and Amendments: If the USPTO issues an office action, requesting additional information or changes to your application, you may incur additional costs for responding to these requests.

It’s important to budget for both the initial costs of trademark registration and the ongoing expenses required to maintain and protect your trademark. The specific costs can vary based on your needs and the nature of your business.  Contact us today to learn about our money-back trademark registration guarantee. 

The USPTO provides updated Trademark Processing Times, which is based on the current number of applications filed and the number of available examiners.  However, you should expect to wait between 8-14 months for your trademark application to be assigned, examined, and approved by your USPTO Examiner. 

Legal Protection Offered by Trademarks

Obtaining a registration with the USPTO can be equated to discovering a trove of valuable assets. The jewel in the crown is the exclusive right conferred upon you to use your trademark across the range of goods or services for which it has been registered, along with granting you the power to license these rights to third parties. Here are some benefits that come with federal trademark registration: Trademarks serve several important functions:

  1. Brand Recognition: They help consumers identify and distinguish products or services from one company as compared to those of others.
  2. Brand Protection: Trademarks provide legal protection to the brand owner, allowing them to prevent others from using a confusingly similar mark, which could dilute the brand’s distinctiveness or cause consumer confusion.
  3. Quality Assurance: Trademarks can convey a sense of quality and consistency associated with the brand, as consumers may have certain expectations when they see a known trademark.
  4. Asset Value: Trademarks can be valuable assets for a business. They can be licensed, sold, or used as collateral for loans.

Safeguarding and maintaining your business’s most valuable asset is critical. Trademarks may achieve ‘incontestable status’ after being actively registered for five years—which provides a stronger defense against any disputes over its usage or challenges towards ownership. Should there be laxity in legally pursuing those who infringe on your mark’s territory—or if it falls out of commercial use—the protections granted by federal law for owning such marks could diminish since they hinge on active engagement within commerce.

Enforcing Trademark Rights

The protection of your trademark is paramount. As the owner of a trademark, it falls upon you to uphold and defend your mark by consistently scanning the market for instances of trademark infringement. Owners must be continuously watching to protect their intellectual property rights.

Should infringement arise, possessing a registered trademark becomes essential for pursuing federal suits regarding violations under the auspices of trademark law. It’s important to recognize that even imitations not identical to your registered mark can constitute infringement. In events where opposition arises against your application for a trademark, engaging with legal expertise in trademarks may become necessary to adequately argue and maintain your claim before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

Maintaining and Renewing Trademarks

A registered trademark can potentially last indefinitely if it is regularly renewed every 10 years and if the trademark owner continues to meet all other legal requirements and obligations associated with trademark maintenance.  Trademark registrations can be renewed multiple times, allowing them to provide protection for a long period, if the following conditions are met:

Timely Renewals: The trademark owner must submit renewal applications and pay the required renewal fees within the specified timeframes set by the USPTO.  The renewal period is between the fifth and sixth years after registration, between the ninth and tenth years after registration, and then every ten years after that.

Continued Use: The trademark must be actively and genuinely used in connection with the registered goods or services.

Compliance with Legal Requirements: The trademark owner must comply with all legal obligations, including responding to office actions, maintaining the accuracy of the trademark registration, and ensuring that the trademark is not used in a way that might lead to abandonment.

No Challenges or Opposition: The trademark must not be subject to successful challenges or opposition by third parties that result in its cancellation or invalidation.

Payment of Renewal Fees: The trademark owner must pay the required renewal fees at each renewal stage. Failure to pay these fees can lead to the expiration of the trademark.

As long as these conditions are consistently met, a registered trademark can be renewed every 10 years, allowing for ongoing protection and exclusivity for the brand. It’s important for trademark owners to stay informed about the renewal requirements and deadlines in their specific jurisdiction and to actively manage and protect their trademark assets to ensure their long-term viability.

Trademark Symbols and Their Usage

The symbols associated with trademarks act much like ensigns unfurled atop a vessel. They comprise the TM symbol for unregistered trademarks, the ® signifying registered trademarks, and the SM emblem designating unregistered service marks. For merchandise-related branding that aims to be officially recognized as a trademark, one uses the TM symbol. Conversely, for signaling a service mark in use or planned use in commerce, SM is applied.

These notations—particularly TM and SM—serve as an initial shield and alerts others of your claim over the brand’s trademark. Once registered, you may display the ® emblem to communicate exclusive trademark ownership rights and robust legal defense against unauthorized usage. It’s important to place these symbols appropriately: adjacent to either word/phrase-based trademarks or logos.

International Trademark Registration

If you’re considering expanding your business internationally, it’s important to note that U.S. trademark registrations only have legal standing within the United States. There’s no need for concern – the Madrid Protocol offers a gateway to safeguarding your trademark on an international scale. Through this treaty, you can seek the protection of your trademark in various countries with just one application.

Should you decide to broaden your market presence even after obtaining initial international registration under the Madrid Protocol, you can add new countries where you wish to protect your mark later on. To ensure smooth and expedient communication during this process, applicants and their representatives need to provide and maintain current email addresses when filing international applications, as mandated by the International Bureau.

What Are the Advantages of International Trademarking?

There are several advantages when deciding whether to file an international trademark application.  One advantage is that multinational filing systems allows an applicant to file one application in a single language for a single filing fee and gain protection in all selected member countries. For the Madrid Protocol, this includes recognition in an expanding list of over 112 countries.  Once granted, the trademark owner will have gained exclusive right to use their trademark in connection with the goods or services identified on the registration certificate for the mark in each member country. 

One of the most undervalued advantages for international trademarks is the trademark owner’s ability to register their mark with various foreign customs offices to help identify and seize or otherwise prevent the distribution of counterfeit products.  Domestically, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is a division of the United States Department of Homeland Security and plays a vital role in policing and seizing counterfeit products from entering the U.S. Other countries have similar enforcement offices. Trademark owners can register their marks with CBP and these foreign offices on their Intellectual Property Rights e-Recordation Website and analogous websites at a nominal fee.

Registration enables CBP and these offices to identify and stop the importation of infringing goods at their port of entry.  For businesses that frequently encounter counterfeit matters, CBP and foreign customs office registrations can be an invaluable tool.

Common Misconceptions and Mistakes

As you delve into the realm of intellectual property and its rights, it’s easy to encounter a variety of inaccuracies and false assumptions. For instance, some individuals mistakenly equate trademarks—including those that are unregistered—with copyrights, Limited Liability Companies (LLCs), or Doing Business As (DBAs). Each provides unique protection. Specifically, trademarks serve to prohibit others from using similar branding on a business name or logo.

Misconceptions also arise around the necessity for small businesses to register their business names as trademarks or the belief that possessing a domain name confers trademark rights. Both notions are incorrect. Owning just a domain does not automatically provide you with trademark protections—formal registration is required for your domain name to be recognized as a trademark. Graphical elements such as designs applied onto products like T-shirts often do not qualify as trademarks unless they act clearly as a source indicator of products.


Reflecting on the trademark landscape, we understand that trademarks are more than mere symbols or words—they serve as a guardian of your brand’s identity, shielding it from infringement and misuse. The process of registering your trademark is critical, as is the importance of diligent maintenance and renewal of trademarks. We’ve also clarified the distinctions between various trademark symbols and their applications.

Dispelling common misconceptions, we recognize that trademarks are essential for small businesses, domain name ownership does not equate to trademark rights, and that designs on products need to clearly indicate the product’s source to be considered trademarks. With the support of the Rapacke Law Group, the path to securing your own federal trademark protection is clear and straightforward. It’s now your turn to ensure your brand’s protection and drive it towards enduring success.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a trademark?

A trademark can be any word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination of these things that identifies your goods or services.

How long does it take to trademark a logo?

Currently, the USPTO wait times for new trademarks are between 8-12 months.  The USPTO trademark processing times can be found here: https://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/application-timeline

Can you trademark your name?

Yes, you can use your name as a trademark.  You can use your name, provided that it meets the necessary requirements for trademark registration. Using your name as a trademark is often referred to as a “personal name trademark.” However, there are some important considerations to keep in mind such as the distinctiveness and secondary meaning.

Remember, using your full name or surname as a trademark is generally permissible. However, you should be aware that certain surnames may be considered too common or generic to function as a trademark without additional distinctive elements.

What are the functions of trademarks?

Trademarks facilitate brand recognition, safeguard brand integrity, ensure quality consistency, and bolster asset valuation. These crucial functions enable companies to nurture and defend their brands as they evolve.

Can a registered trademark last forever if it is maintained?

Yes, a registered trademark can potentially last indefinitely if it is regularly renewed. Trademarks do not expire if they remain in use and the proper fees are paid. If the proper fees are paid and your trademark is being used in commerce, trademark protection can last indefinitely.  However, it is subject to certain conditions and requirements including proper maintenance renewal fee payment and use in commerce.  Don’t forget you need to be diligent in enforcing your mark and ensuring that it does not become generic.

The RLG Guarantee on Trademarks

The RLG offers a money-back guarantee on all trademark applications. To be clear: should your trademark application not be allowed for any reason we would provide a full refund.  The RLG trademark package includes a comprehensive trademark search, preparation, and filing of your trademark application with the USPTO and payment of your USPTO filing fees.  Schedule a Free IP Strategy Call or take our intelligent IP quiz to see what protection is best for your invention.

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