It's becoming more and more important for businesses--both small and large--to protect their intellectual property. From patenting inventions, to copyrighting creative works, to trademarking brand names and marks, business owners should become as savvy as possible on how spending the money to protect IP translates to increased profits or at the least, protected assets, down the road. While it's always a good idea to seek out reputable legal counsel from an experienced IP attorney, there are also some basic tips businesses can keep in mind when it comes to trademarks.
1. Register Your Trademarks. Seems pretty straightforward, right? You might be surprised by just how many businesses neglect to do this, or fail to do it in a timely enough manner to maximize their company's profits associated with branding. As soon as you work out your company's specific name, logos, slogans, certification marks, and any other important marks, you should immediately register them with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (the "USPTO"). It may not be mandatory to register them in order to obtain and maintain trademark protection, it makes it much easier when it comes to enforcing trademark rights. You should also consider applying now for registration of other available marks that you think the company may use in the future.
2. Use Trademark Notices. Make sure you use proper trademark notices on all trademarks, service marks, and certification marks your company owns and uses (i.e. TM for non-registered marks and ® for registered marks). Again, while these notices aren't mandatory, using them consistently can make it easier to enforce your IP rights later on, especially when it comes to countering an "innocent infringement" defense at trial.
3. Enforce Your Trademark Rights. Registering for trademark protection does you no good if you don't periodically search for unauthorized use of your marks and then enforce your rights. It's a good idea to conduct periodic web searches and any other necessary means to track how your marks are being used. Enforcement may not necessitate that you file an actual lawsuit--you can start with a request that the unauthorized user cease and desist using your registered mark.
4. Get It in Writing! Whenever your business lets others use any of its protected marks, including its name, logos, trademarks, or other IP, make sure you set out the terms and conditions of the license in writing. Exclusive licenses (permission to use) and assignments (transfer of ownership) have to be in writing in order to be legal and binding. Oral or implied non-exclusive licenses are possible, but often tough to interpret and enforce. Just save yourself the headache and get it in writing!
Zach Girod is the Co-Founder of Legal River. Legal River helps small business save time and money when looking for legal services.
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