By Tori Lutz, guest blogger
There is a lot of confusion regarding a brand’s relationship with intellectual property and trademarking. Let’s take a quick look at intellectual property (IP) law basics and how they affect business branding.
What is IP Law?
Intellectual property law is a subset of the legal system that covers intangible property, such as inventions and designs.
IP law is often quite a bit more complex than standard physical property law, since stealing of intellectual property can manifest itself in less-than-obvious ways, and damages or harm also result via different mechanisms. Stealing an invention concept, for instance, does not take that invention away from the inventor but rather reduces its market value via competition and decreased novelty.
There are four primary types of IP law: patents, copyrights, trade secrets, and trademarks. Patents deal with inventions. A successfully filed and approved patent grants a temporary monopoly to the holder, letting only them produce and market their invention for twenty years. This encourages innovation and protects smaller businesses from infringement by larger companies who could bring a product to market sooner.
Copyrights might be a bit more familiar to most readers. Original creative work, including writing, art, music, and other artistic endeavors are protected by copyright law, which enables litigation against others using or reusing work for their own purposes. Copyright enables creators to profit by licensing their work for temporary use. However, certain academic, research, and journalistic uses of creative work falls under fair use law and is not restricted by traditional copyright.
Trade secrets are a little more obscure, covering any confidential information that can help a business get a competitive edge, such as vendor lists, secret recipes, manufacturing techniques, and more. In order to be protected by trade secret laws, this information must have been reasonably attempted to be kept secret via confidentiality agreements or contracts.
Finally, we come to trademarks, which are the most crucially related to brands and brand names. You might recognize trademarks by the TM or R insignia present next to brands and logos. This means that that brand has filed a trademark and can protect itself from imitation by others. If one cereal company is called “Krunch,” for instance, a second brand could not take on that same name, or even obviously similar variations like “Krunsch” or “Krunnch.”
Of course, if a trash compactor company took on that same name, trademark issues would most likely not arise, since the two operate in different industries and cannot reasonably be confused for each other. Trademarks don’t just cover names; logos, jingles, and slogans can all be protected as well.
Why Trademark Your Brand Name?
Brand names have become more and more important in the e-commerce and social media age. No longer are consumers dependent on the shops and stores in their immediate vicinity, or restriction by opening hours and what happens to be in stock.
The internet has brought with it a deluge of supply for the market, regardless of niche, and with that supply-side saturation has come a new degree of choice for the consumer. Anyone trying to buy a pair of shoes in a specific style, color, and size can still choose between a myriad of brands. On the other hand, it’s become harder to try things out ahead of time and much of the e-commerce market relies on consumers trusting brands for consistency and quality.
These two factors, choice and the need for trust, have led to an increased reliance on brand favorability. People want brands that they can can rely on without having to worry they’re taking a risk. Trademarks become very important in this respect, helping to distinguish brands by name, look, and even sound. The more recognizable, tasteful, and memorable a brand is, the more it will stick in the mind and even advertise itself via organic social media posts.
Brand names are the essence of brand recognizability for several reasons. First, they can be easily referenced, tagged, and recognized in the online sphere. Brand names also immediately invoke a feeling and establish associations for consumers. Finding the right brand name can be a valuable asset, and as with every valuable asset, it should be protected.
Trademarking a brand name should be done as soon as possible, and not just to deter others from stealing it. Sure, you aren’t legally required to register a brand name trademark with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), but the benefits of registrations are significant. A federally registered trademark grants national, not just local protection. It also enables litigation in federal court.
J.D. Houvener, a Houston patent attorney, stresses another benefit of trademark registration: legitimacy. “Not only does registering a trademark make your brand seem more reliable and trustworthy to consumers, but it also may help you with any brand name disputes that may arise. If you and another company came to prominence around the same time with the same name, but yours is trademarked and theirs is not, chances are they’ll be changing their name pretty soon.”
Brand names are more important than ever in a digitally connected age and a saturated market. Consumers, facing endless choices, often go with brands they trust or names that invoke positive associations. Given that a brand name can be a powerful asset in today’s e-commerce world, protecting it with a registered trademark can be key in getting a leg up on the competition. Make sure to seek out professional legal advice to protect your own brand identity or consult the USPTO resources available.