(This is the third and final post in my series on Trademark Basics. The first post can be found here, and the second can be found here. Future "basics" series will discuss patents, copyrights, and trade secrets.)
Let's assume you've decided to take the plunge and register your trademark. We'll also assume you've done your homework – selected a mark that at a minimum is not generic and so is capable of being registered; performed a reasonably comprehensive search to determine whether anyone else is using your mark for the same or similar goods or services (we'll focus on goods going forward, but understand that services are covered as well); defined the goods to which the mark will apply so that the mark can be assigned to one or more of the classes of goods used by the Trademark Office to organize marks.
Filing Your Application With the Trademark Office
With the proper level of preparation, the registration process itself becomes a somewhat straightforward exercise. The application form is actually an interactive set of forms that you or your attorney will complete on the Trademark Office website (http://www.uspto.gov/teas/e-TEAS/index.html). The so-called “TEAS” system will step you through the application process, and while it is far from foolproof, it will alert you to basic missteps such as required fields that are left blank or filled in improperly.
You will need to know who is going to own the mark – for most businesses, it will be the business entity in whose name the application is filed, and so will become the owner of the registered mark. The application then requests the usual sorts of contact information that you might expect it to, all of which becomes part of the public record.
You of course will need to identify the mark. The system allows you to submit the mark in either a word form or, for logos or stylized lettering, an image form (JPG format is the only one accepted). For images, you will also have to provide any word or letters included in the image. Using our “Acme” example, if we are registering a stylized “Acme” logo, we would identify it by the word “Acme.”
There are then a series of statements that the system invites you to make about the mark: whether any parts of the mark are being disclaimed (in our “Acme Hair Gel” example, you might disclaim the generic phrase “Hair Gel” even though you might use it as part of your mark). A “disclaimed” element is one for which you are not claiming to have exclusive rights. You also have the opportunity to claim that the mark has become “distinctive,” meaning that through long use or heavy media exposure, consumers have come to associate the mark with the source of the underlying goods. While the system provides you with some clues as to what will support a claim of distinctiveness, if you're not sure about whether your mark qualifies it might make sense to seek the advice of a trademark lawyer.
Goods and Services
Next you will be asked to identify the goods or services for which the mark is to be registered. The “TEAS Plus” version of the system contains a search tool that is meant to help you identify the appropriate International Class of goods or services to use in the application. The regular “TEAS” application allows you to select your International Class of goods as well as create your own description of what the covered goods or services are. A short description of the differences between the two system versions can be found on the Patent and Trademark Office website at http://www.uspto.gov/teas/teasplus.htm.
While it is important to make sure that your application covers all of the classes for which you might be using your mark, keep in mind that your application cost increases for each class of goods that you select. In addition, while creating your own description of those goods or services can be very effective, it can sometimes create problems with the application if it's not done properly. Here too it can often be helpful to secure the advice of an attorney before selecting your class or classes of goods or services, or your descriptions.
Existing Use or Intent-to-Use?
The next option is to choose whether your application is based on your existing use of the mark (“Section 1(a)”), or whether it is a so-called “intent to use” (“Section 1(b)”) application. You can also indicate whether the application is based on a foreign application or registration, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
You'll be asked for some correspondence information, which is where attorneys would provide their contact information, and then will be provided with the application cost and will sign the form electronically. You'll have the opportunity to review and save the completed form – it's very good practice to do so – and then you will be taken to a payment page where you can input credit card information and submit payment.
Done and Filed!
Once filed, your application is officially “pending.” That means nothing in terms of how you identify your mark to the world – until you have an issued registration, you must use the “TM” designation and not the “®” designation.
After a period of time, you will receive a response from an examiner at the Trademark Office. The response may grant your application, or it may reject it, or it may suggest or request some modification to the application. Whether or not you consult a trademark attorney will depend on the nature of the examiner's response.
Generally speaking, your chances of successfully registering your marks will increase if you take advantage of the services of a competent trademark attorney from the beginning. Many will file the initial application for a fixed fee over and above what the Trademark Office application fee is (currently $275 per class if you use the TEAS Plus system, and $325 per class if you use the TEAS system). There are other Trademark Office fees that may apply as well: if you file an intent-to-use application, for example, you will pay $100 to file your “Statement of Use.”
Once Approved . . . It's Not Over
Assuming your application is eventually approved by the Trademark Examiner, that is not the end of the road. It is then published in the Trademark Gazette, and third parties will have 30 days to file a notice of opposition to your mark (very often, in fact, they will request and receive an extension of this time period). If someone decides to oppose the registration of your mark, they will file an opposition proceeding, and the registration of your mark will be delayed until after that proceeding is resolved.
Finally, if you do secure a registration of your mark, keep in mind that the registration does not last forever. You will be required between the 5th and 6th anniversarys of your mark's registration to file a “Declaration of Use” (along with a fee, of course) that shows that you are still using the mark in commerce. While you can file the Declaration of Use up to six months later (for an additional fee, of course), if you don't file it you are likely to have your registration canceled.
Consider Using Counsel
This has been a summary of some of the main issues that trademark owners need to consider when deciding whether or not to register their trademarks. This field of law can become complicated, particularly in crowded and competitive markets. While many business owners enjoy the challenge of taking on these issues by themselves, it often helps to find qualified trademark counsel who can advise along the way. Don't let your budget stand in the way of asking for help – very often, with a little bit of work, you can find an attorney who is willing to work with you even if your budget is tight.