What Everybody Ought to Know About Trademark Law

April 17, 2014 — 7 Comments

At its core, trademark laws are intended to accomplish two things: (1) prevent consumer confusion; and (2) protect a mark owners’ investment into their goodwill. That sounds simple enough, but there are many nuisances of trademark law that we will cover on this blog in the months to come. But before we get there, we’ll explain more about the purpose behind trademark law, the protection trademark law provides to mark owners, and how it is different from other types of intellectual property.

Purpose of Trademark law

Protecting a name, slogan, or logo can provide immense value to a business, but the real intent of trademark law is actually to protect consumers. Essentially, trademark laws exist to prevent consumers from being duped into buying a product or engaging a service provider that might be trying to profit off the goodwill of other businesses.

For example, when someone buys a BMW they believe they are buying “the ultimate driving machine.” If other car companies were allowed to name their cars BMW, then consumers would be confused as to which car is really the ultimate machine and which car is simply a nice looking car with an old engine under the hood.

To prevent such confusion, trademark laws allow BMW to protect their mark and slogan and prevent other companies from using the BMW name and slogan without BMW’s permission. Of course the scope of that protection is worth discussion as well.

Scope of Protection

The first person or company to use a mark in commerce may claim rights to the mark. If the mark is only used in one state, state protection is available. If the mark is used across state lines, then federal protection is available. In either case, mark owners can rely on both common law (judge made law) and statutory law (laws enacted by legislatures) if the mark owner registers the mark.

Once a mark owner owns the rights to the mark, the owner may then prevent other individuals and companies (including nonprofits) from using the mark in any way that is likely to cause consumer confusion. Note that actual confusion is not required. A finding of likely confusion is sufficient to prevent another from using your protected mark. But, trademark law is unique in that your protection only applies to those goods and services that you sell or provide using your mark. Now that you know trademark basics, don’t make the mistake of claiming *patent* protection of your company name!

Trademark v. Copyright v. Patent

Lastly, everything we’ve discussed above relates to trademark law, which is distinctive of patent and copyright law and, unfortunately, many people (and many lawyers) use these terms interchangeably.

Trademark law protects names, slogans, and other items that serve as a source identifier of a particular good or service. Trademark protection lasts for as long as a mark owner continues to use a mark in commerce. Trademark infringement occurs when someone uses a protected trademark without permission.

Copyright law protects creative works including music, dance choreography, computer code, and other types of works. Copyright protection only lasts for the life of the author plus some additional time period, usually 70 years. Copyright infringement occurs when someone reproduces, distributes, or displays, an identical work or a work that is substantially similar to the protected work.

Patent law protects mainly inventions and processes (but not discoveries). Patent protection usually lasts only 20 years. Patent infringement occurs when someone makes or sells a patented subject matter without authorization.

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Image Credit: Thinkstock/alexskopje

*This article is very general in nature and does not constitute legal advice. Readers with legal questions should consult with an attorney prior to making any legal decisions.

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