According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a trademark is “a word, phrase, symbol, or design, or a combination thereof, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.” They are an essential part of a business’s brand and can affect how consumers see the company. Golden arches, even without the name of a restaurant, are easily recognizable as a symbol of McDonald’s. There are many such examples of just how embedded some trademarks become in the public consciousness.

Because trademarks are so integral to a brand’s identity, many business owners want to keep theirs safe from competitors. Remaining unique helps keep them distinct in the mind of a consumer.

Keeping a trademark safe

A brand’s logo, symbol or design does not have to be federally registered to gain specific legal protections. Merely using it in the natural course of business grants it protection under common law. Unfortunately, there are a few drawbacks to this; unregistered trademarks only have enforcement limited to their local geographic area. Federally registered ones have more legal protections throughout the entire United States.

When using your trademark, the USPTO recommends using a corresponding designation with it. If your mark is unregistered, you can use TM (for goods) or SM (for services). If it is registered, you can use the registered trademark symbol: ®. By utilizing a designation, it sends a clear message that this logo or symbol is a representation of your business.

Another recommendation from the USPTO is to ensure that you use a strong and distinctive mark for your business. If it has a generic appearance, it will be harder to enforce in court because it may appear too similar to existing designs. This tip is especially important for entrepreneurs who are just starting a business.

Think carefully about the design of your company’s logo or mark and what your needs are. Common law trademark protection may suffice for a small business, but larger ones may want to consider an official registration.