A great logo can be like gold to your small business. It acts as your abbreviated calling card, summarizing your company’s beliefs, culture and quality without the need for any further explanation. Further, the colors, fonts and unique graphical aspects of each logo are a testament to the brand they represent.
They may also represent a significant financial investment.
“Your brand’s logo is the sort of thing that can have a bigger effect on your business than you first think,” writes John Rampton of Forbes. “The wrong logo can make your brand come off as unprofessional, assuming anyone notices you at all. A good logo will create instant recognition within the minds of your target audience.”
That’s why it’s important to protect your logo from being copied, mimicked or knocked off by lesser brands without your permission, a crime otherwise known as trademark infringement. In the most typical scenario, someone creates a logo similar to yours to confuse customers into associating the two products; they knowingly or unknowingly use important elements of your design; or they commandeer the entire thing. Penalties for such misuse range from cease and desist orders to product seizure, fines and jail sentences, depending on the likelihood the logos were confused, the perpetrator’s intentions, the extent to which the logo was used commercially and the extent to which its elements are deemed generic.
A similar issue is “trademark dilution,” which is misuse of a company name or symbol in a way that decreases its uniqueness. A firm that promotes vegetarian products, for example, may not be amused if its customers are confused by a meat-packing company of the same name.
Unfortunately, logo theft is a common source of conflict in the graphic design industry, according to Legalmatch.com, and it’s particularly pervasive in the fashion segment. One whole website is devoted to calling out thieves, while other sites collect stories about unusual copyright infringement suits. Secureyourtrademark.com mentions instances in which McDonald’s failed to shut down a Malaysian restaurant called McCurry; Harley Davidson tried to trademark the sound of a Harley’s engine revving; and Twitter lost its trademark of the word “tweet” to a subsidiary.
In any case, being so victimized can lead to real profitability problems for your firm, especially if the public perceives your brand to be of lesser quality as a result of all the confusion.
Protect your brand
How to prevent such a calamity? Take steps to trademark your company’s logo and brand, immediately adding “TM” to your mark then officially registering it nationwide. The relatively straightforward trademarking process through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) gives you ammunition if you ever need to sue an imposter and helps protect your brand integrity for the long haul. Eight steps involved in that process include:
1. Logo assessment: Start by evaluating exactly which symbols or words identify your company and its brand; those not specifically linked to your brand could be rejected.
2. Trademark search: Find out if your marks have been registered by another party by searching the Trademark Electronic Search System after finding corresponding codes in the Design Search Code Manual. Vetting obvious conflicts ahead of time could save you considerable time and money.
3. Hiring of an attorney: The (optional) hiring of an intellectual property lawyer may be smart if parts of your logo have already been registered, or you wish to register several logos at once. Your lawyer could then handle all USPTO negotiations. Find law experts in the telephone yellow pages or by contacting a local bar association.
4. Application completion: Online completion is preferred; that process is timed and must be completed within an hour. Only one mark is permitted per application, and a clear scan of the mark must be included. The nonrefundable filing fee ranges from $225 to $325 for each category of goods or services the logo will cover. Note that the information you provide is of public record due to the Freedom of Information Act.
5. Serial number receipt: With an online application you’ll be assigned a case (serial) number almost immediately via email; response from a paper application may take seven to 10 business days.
6. Progress monitoring: Expect to wait three to six months while the USPTO reviews your application. An examining attorney will determine whether it complies with applicable rules and statutes and doesn’t conflict with existing trademarks. Check the status of that review for free at any time at http://tarr.uspto.gov/, 571-272-9250 or 800-786-9199. In the meantime, watch for any notifications from that office that may require a response. A helpful video entitled “After You File” is posted here.
7. Handling of delays: If parts of your logo are already registered, the final response will almost certainly be delayed, and negotiations may take several months or even years. If the process draws out, hiring a lawyer is probably in your best interest.
8. Final response:Eventually, you will be notified as to the success or failure of your application. In the event of rejection, you’ll receive a letter explaining the reasons and pointing to aspects that should be corrected. Appeals are possible, but your application will be considered abandoned if you don’t make corrections or file for an appeal within six months. Upon approval, your trademark will appear in weekly USPTO publication the “Official Gazette,” after which anyone with objections has 30 days to object
If you’re in the clear, congratulations! You then have the exclusive right to use your new logo nationwide (and to apply for registration in other countries) in connection with your brand. Your logo will be part of the USPTO database, and you can officially start using the federal registration symbol ®.
After that, be sure to renew your trademark by filing an Affidavit of Use five to six years following registration, then every 10th year thereafter. Similar filing fees will be enforced with renewal.
Those with further questions about applying for a trademark may contact the USPTO at 800-786-9199 or 571-272-1000.
Plowing through the trademarking process for your logo can take time, money and effort, but it’s a necessary part of protecting the hard work you’re investing into your brand name.
“Protecting your trademark is like managing a winning sports team — you need both a good offense and a good defense,” writes Ilana DeBare on Inc.com. “The offense … involves taking time to identify a strong trademark or service mark what will be hard for competitors to steal. The defense … involves three strategies: Using your mark correctly, monitoring for potential infringements and cracking down on those who trespass on your trademark turf.”
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2014 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and relevance.