SCORE: Trademark basics for small business owners

Published 10:00 pm Monday, March 7, 2016

As a small business owner, differentiating your company from your competition is essential. Naturally, your business name, tagline, product names, logo, etc. play a big part in that.

Because they establish your business’ identity, you don’t want another business stealing the specific words and symbols you use to represent your company.

According to SCORE mentor and retired IP attorney Charles Gumpel, “If your company’s brand image is stolen or closely duplicated, the result (financial and otherwise) could be devastating to your business. For instance, customers might be unable to identify the ‘real’ brand from the impostors, and you would probably never reclaim those customers even if you found a way to stop the impostor. Other adverse effects could also occur, which ultimately might lead to the termination of your business.”

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Thankfully, however, trademark rights provide you with some level of protection.

About trademarks

“Trademark” can refer to both “trademarks” and “service marks.” They’re similar, but not exactly alike.

Trademarks are used to identify and distinguish the provider of goods, whereas service marks identify and distinguish the provider of services.

According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website*, “Any time you claim rights in a mark, you may use the ‘TM’ (trademark) or ‘SM’ (service mark) designation to alert the public to your claim, regardless of whether you have filed an application with the USPTO.”

Using TM or SM informs others you’re claiming the wording or symbol or design. Realize, however, that you may have difficulty bringing legal action against another party if they use something that’s the same or very similar to represent their company’s offerings. For additional protection and benefits, you can register with the USPTO to officially claim your mark. If approved by the USPTO, you can use the official federal registration symbol, “®”. The USPTO clearly states that you may not use that symbol until after the USPTO actually approves and registers the mark—not while your application is pending.

“If you elect not to register your mark with the USPTO, you will forfeit a number of important benefits,” explains Gumpel. “Among them are: greater confidence that your selected mark is protectable; nationwide notice of ownership to help prevent others from claiming the same or confusingly similar mark; accessibility to federal courts to stop impostors and possibly obtain treble damages and attorney fees; the possibility of effectively blocking counterfeit imports; and other similar benefits.”

How to register for a trademark or service mark

Before filing an application to register your mark, you might save yourself time and money by doing an initial search in the USPTO’s TESS (Trademark Electronic Search System) to verify no one else has applied for the same mark.

To learn more about trademarks, visit the USPTO website,, where you’ll find detailed information and links to helpful resources.

Please note that all shared in this article is for informational purposes only and not intended as legal advice. Consider consulting an attorney specializing in trademark law to discuss the specifics of your business and guide you through the process.

If you would like help with this process, or other aspects of your established or start-up business, the volunteers at SCORE are available to help. SCORE is a nationwide network of over 13,000 experienced volunteer executives offering free assistance to small businesses looking for mentoring, counseling, tools and workshops. You can read about SCORE at The Polk County Chapter of SCORE can be reached at 828-859-5456 or via email at Article submitted by Mike Frye, WNC SCORE, Polk County Branch.