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Intellectual Property

Guide to Intellectual Property: What is a Trademark?

Take a look at almost any product from any brand in your home, and you’re likely to find symbols like ™ and ®. These symbols represent trademarks — crucial elements of intellectual property (IP).

As part of our “Guide to Intellectual Property” blog series, the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) is covering the basics of IP protection. In our first blog of this series, we discussed copyright protection and briefly compared copyrights versus trademarks. Now, let’s take a closer look at trademarks and what they mean for the rights of creators, innovators and entrepreneurs.


What is a trademark?

While trademarks, copyrights and patents are all designed to protect the things we create, each one protects a different type of IP. A trademark most often protects IP associated with companies, such as a word, phrase, symbol or design used to identify and promote products or services. Companies may also use a service mark, which protects their services in the same way trademarks protect their goods.

Trademarks can help a business to differentiate what they make, do and sell from their competitors’ offerings. Businesses can become more recognizable and attractive to consumers through the use of their exclusive names, logos and other branding elements, because no other businesses will be permitted to use such elements if they are protected by trademarks.

If you develop an invention, trademarks can help you to market what you’ve made. By using a trademarked name and logo, for instance, you can avoid the risk of others attempting to portray your product as their own.


What can be protected by trademarks?

Trademark examples can be found everywhere and are sometimes surprising! For instance, did you know trademarks may be applied to colors, sounds and even scents?  Elements that may be protected by trademarks include but are not limited to:

  • Brand names
  • Product names
  • Logos and symbols
  • Slogans
  • Colors, such as Tiffany & Co.’s “Tiffany Blue,” or the “Barbie Pink” trademarked by Mattel
  • Product shapes, like the Coca-Cola bottle
  • Sounds, like NBC’s three-tone chime
  • Scents, such as the distinctive fragrance of Play-Doh
  • Fictitious characters like brand mascots

In addition, combination or composite marks can cover more than one feature, like the Starbucks coffee emblem, which includes both a name and a symbol.


What does it mean when a trademark is registered?

In the Unites States, the ™ symbol is used to denote unregistered trademarks, while the ® indicates that a trademark has been registered with and validated by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

A registered trademark makes it easier for you to prove ownership of your mark and to take action if someone infringes on your mark. It can also prevent others from using marks that are deceptively similar to yours.


How can I register a trademark?

To protect IP such as a brand name, the trademark application process begins with a trademark lookup. You can visit the Trademark Electronic Search System (“TESS”) database and do a trademark name search to find out if someone else is already using an identical or similar mark in the same class of products or services that you offer. If you have a unique mark to register, you can file an application online using the Trademark Electronic Application System.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office website provides more information on the application process, from the trademark fees you’ll encounter to whether or not you’ll need a trademark attorney. 

For more on both the process and the importance of protecting IP, we encourage you to read the next blog in our “Guide to Intellectual Property” series, which will focus on U.S. patents.


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