Most entrepreneurs are not lawyers, but we're all interested in ensuring our business assets and intellectual property rights are protected. When starting a new business or launching a new product, it's common to ask "How can I ensure my unique business and product names, logos, and slogans are protected?"
The first step, if you haven't done so yet, is to submit the paperwork to create your formal business entity. The process is slightly different for each state, but is typically straightforward and can be found online. It usually just involves submitting the completed forms along with payment by check to the correct state office. The cost can range from $50 - $750 depending on the state and entity type. Each legal entity (sole proprietorship, partnership, LLC, corporation) offers different legal and tax advantages and disadvantages.
When creating your business entity, the state will ensure that your company name does not conflict with other companies in their database. This also means that in the future they will check that new business names are distinguishable from your company's name, offering you the first layer of protection.
However, when registering your name, it's important to also be sure that your name does not conflict with any existing trademarks - this is not ususally a procedure that the state will conduct for you. A trademark (or service mark for service-based firms) is a word, symbol, or phrase used to distinguish products/services from one company from the products/services of another in the marketplace. Before submitting the paperwork for your business license, confirm that your company name is not already used in the marketplace. Take a look through the phone book, browse the internet, or check business directories in your industry. To be sure, visit the United States Patent and Trademark (USPTO) site and search for your business name in the federal database. Similar searches are typically possible on state government websites for trademarks that were registered at the state level.
It is not neccessary to formally register your trademark to use the TM symbol and receive the benefits of trademark protection. Your trademark rights are established immediately upon your first use of your logo and/or business name in the marketplace. It is important to claim your rights publicly through the use of the "TM" or "SM" symbol.
You do receive additional legal advantages by registering your trademark with the state and/or federal government. Federal registration usually costs around $300 while state registration can cost much less. Most businesses do not choose to formally register their trademarks. Review the small business section of the USPTO website or consult a lawyer to learn more about what is right for your business.