Having an idea for a new company, product or service is incredibly exciting. You may wish to get your idea off the ground as quickly as possible—but there are few things you must do to make sure you’re not infringing on anyone else’s intellectual property.
Your first step is to make sure the name you have in mind has not already been trademarked by a different individual, business or organization. To do this, there are a number of state and federal databanks that list registered trademarks that you can search. You will also want to conduct general internet searches to make sure you are not violating any common law standards for marks that are not registered, but would still be protected under U.S. trademark laws.
The following are a few specific tips to keep in mind as you begin your trademark search:
- Matches don’t have to be exact: Trademarks do not only protect against exact name matches. They also protect against similar names. You should be on the lookout for trademarks that use purposeful misspellings or phonetic spellings, as a similar name spelled differently could still be considered infringement. If any matches occur, figure out what type of brand or products it protects, as you still might be able to use your name if it is a different enough industry or product.
- Browse federal trademarks: Your first place for searching for conflicts should be the Trademark Electronic Search System provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This will provide you with both exact matches and similar terms. It will also give you information like when the mark was filed, what its purpose is and who owns it.
- Browse state trademarks: You are also able to file trademarks with the state or territorial office. If your business is located in the U.S. Virgin Islands, you may file to have your trademark protected only in the territory. As with federal trademarks, you should be on the lookout for any trademarks that are exactly the same or similar to the one for which you’re searching.
- “Common law” marks: Trademarks do not necessarily have to be registered before they are able to be enforced. This can add some additional challenges if someone has a “common law” trademark, as there is no database for such marks. Your best bet when searching for existing common law marks is to perform thorough web searches. “Thorough” is the key word here—you’ll likely need to go beyond the first few pages of search results.
In addition to all of these steps, you should also seek the assistance of an intellectual property attorney to perform searches for trademarks on your behalf. These attorneys have significant experience in searching for and finding potentially conflicting marks, and will give you or your business an added level of protection and assurance.
Steven K. Hardy is Chair of the BoltNagi Intellectual Property Practice Group. BoltNagi is a widely respected and well-established intellectual property and business law firm proudly serving individuals, businesses and organizations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.