THE ANNALS OF TRADEMARK NUMBER 2 « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


Selecting a Mark Part 1

How do you choose a trademark (for products) or service mark (for services)? Choosing an enforceable mark or one that can be registered with the government is not as simple as just picking a word, icon or phrase that you like. Careful research and planning are required to confirm your chosen mark does not conflict, i.e., is not likely to cause confusion in the public’s eye, with an existing mark. If you skip this step out of supposed cost or time considerations and rely purely on chance that no-one else already has rights that would trump your own, you may be in for a very expensive mistake.

Witness the nearly 30 years of legal actions (1978 – 2007) between Apple Records (aka the Beatles’ label) and Apple Computer, in part over the supposed confusion between the music company’s whole green Granny Smith apple logo and the computer company’s iTunes cartoon apple with a bite taken. Apple Records prevailed in some of the cases and there were some settlements. Apple Computer then prevailed in the last court battle over whether its establishment of iTunes violated the earlier settlement, citing another case decision to argue that “even a moron in a hurry could not be mistaken about” the distinction between the two marks. The parties then settled, with Beatles music available on iTunes. Of course, if you don’t have the kind of money these two entities could devote to the fight, you should avoid such disputes in the first place.

Some of the steps involved in picking a good trademark are:

1. Find out if anyone else is using the mark you want to use or something similar. The research can and should be done on various levels, for example, search of the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) website; with state trademark registrars; online search for others using the mark; other searches of business forums and publications.
2. Determine if any such similar or identical marks are being used to identify products or services that are the same or related to what you are looking to identify with your potential mark.
3. In the event of such conflicts, continue the selection and research process until you have a potential mark that you believe will not be too close to someone else’s and the goods or service it is used to identify.

Some potential conflicts are obvious. An individual seeking to use “Nike,” “Nikey,” or even “NighKeigh” to identify a shoe company is clearly a bad idea. In addition to marks that are identical or similar in appearance or spelling, sounding the same can be enough to rule it out.

Another less-evident factor can cause problems. Some people do not register their established marks with the U.S. or other national government or with any state. Thus, even a fairly thorough search will not find them. Yet, even without government registration, a use in commerce (between states or with a foreign country) or even on a local level, may give its owner the right to block you from using the same or a similar mark for the same or similar products or services. Thus well-planned research beyond the standard government data bases should be part of the due diligence.

Maximizing your protections should include hiring a trademark specialist attorney who can get a search done for you. While you can of course order a search yourself, you would not then receive the attorney’s analysis on potentials for conflict and invitations for trouble. “Penny wise and pound/dollar foolish” comes to mind. Skipping the relatively small investment of a close search may buy a new business the much greater expense of dealing with a “cease and desist” letter from a rival. Such a letter typically presents an assortment of bad alternatives: (a) stop using the mark to avoid a losing legal battle and incur the expense of having to switch to a new, non-conflicting mark; (b) fight the challenger in court, with virtually guaranteed high legal fees and similarly guaranteed uncertainty of outcome; or (c) ignore the letter and hope they will go away.

Prevention of infringement claims is thus key. Clearing and properly protecting a mark are part of a business’s start-up costs or launch of a new product or service. Include those costs in your budget and you will save in the long run. Contact attorney Helena Kobrin if you need help selecting a legally protectable trademark.

Helena Kobrin, October 24, 2014