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Small Businesses with BIG NAMES: Protect Your Trademarks and Reap the Rewards

You're a small business owner with a hot new product or service and you're deciding what to name it. Perhaps you've even hired a graphic designer to create a flashy logo to go with it. You may have ruled out trademark registration as too expensive or even unnecessary because you only plan to sell in your local area. This article will show why nearly every business can benefit from trademark protection, and how a new option makes professional trademark assistance affordable for most small businesses and entrepreneurs.

There are two excellent reasons to protect a trademark as soon as possible, even for small businesses that operate in a limited area. The first is that a professionally prepared trademark conflict search will help you identify existing trademarks to avoid infringement. Discovering a conflict ahead of your launch will allow you to change names before investing in promotional materials and advertising, and building recognition of a name you may have to change later. The last thing your new business or project needs is a lawsuit during the startup stage.

On the plus side, discovering a conflict may offer an opportunity to create a new name that distinguishes you from existing "brands" and projects your unique value proposition. Speaking of branding opportunities, the second reason to protect your trademark even if you operate in a limited area is to prepare for nationwide expansion of your business. With the shift toward online marketing and commerce, even the smallest businesses are finding larger markets to expand into. Also, registering the mark with the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office gives public notice of your trademark rights, protects the mark nationwide, and discourages infringement with heavier penalties.

Now that we know it's important to protect trademarks, let's examine a new option for professional trademark assistance at significant savings over the traditional law firm fees. A new breed of firms called Trademark Service Providers specialize in trademark research and related services, offering them to small businesses and entrepreneurs without the typical legal fees. While they do not represent clients in court or provide legal advice, they can perform the specialized research necessary to check for conflicts. Some firms also prepare trademark applications and provide ongoing infringement searches. A few providers even offer creative naming services to help clients with the naming process.

In order to appreciate the benefits of using these new services, let's continue with the scenario from earlier. You have selected a name and you are weighing your trademark options. You may have read an article on trademarks that suggested you conduct a "free" online trademark search. Let's briefly examine online conflict searches.

Two of the most popular free trademark searches are the online records of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov), and a simple name search using Internet search engines. Unfortunately, these searches can be misleading to those who are new to the subject of trademarks. As we will examine below, these searches are only the first stage of an effective search process. They may uncover obvious conflicts, but as you will see below, they do not reliably answer the question of trademark availability. The same can be said for State trademark registrations and searches. In fact, only a fraction of the trademarks in use are registered with the State and Federal agencies. The remaining marks are unregistered, often referred to as "common law" trademarks.

Common law trademarks are unregistered marks used in business or commerce that receive limited legal protection based on the geographical area where they are used. The absence of a centralized registry documenting these marks complicates the process of conducting a conflict and availability search. Locating common law marks requires an experienced researcher using the latest and most extensive sources, searching literally millions of relevant business and legal records. This is where a Trademark Service Provider can help.

A Trademark Service Provider has access to proprietary search resources with the most current and extensive information, advanced search technology, and the expertise necessary to conduct a diligent and comprehensive conflict search. Due to the existence of common law trademarks, no search results are 100% conclusive. However, the best strategy is to obtain the most thorough search and then begin using and protecting a mark as soon as possible.

If you plan to use a particular trademark but your business has not opened yet, you can file an "intent to use" application to protect it for six months during the development stage. For an additional fee you can extend this period up to two years if necessary.

Trademark Service Providers are part of a growing trend of out-sourced expertise designed for small businesses. In contrast to the more expensive "one size fits all" approach used by big national firms, or the risky alternative of going it alone, a firm that specializes in serving small business owners can be the perfect solution. They offer reasonably priced yet professional-grade services, a capable staff that supports your vision, and the expertise that allows you return to your primary goal of building your dream business. Before you know it, your small business will be creating a Big Name reputation, with the confidence that your trademarks are protected.

John M. Huff is a Trademark Specialist and President of Trademark Partners, a research and consulting firm that helps small business owners create and protect trademarks. He serves clients in Maryland and nationwide. He can be reached at 1-888-MARKABLE (1-888-627-5225) and http://www.TrademarkPartners.com

This article is for information purposes only. It is not meant to be legal advice, and does not replace the services of an attorney.

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