What’s the point [of a trademark]anyway?

I don’t know about your line of work, but in mine, people are looking to own things. Usually that means words, ideas, logos, designs, etc. For some, this is valid; for others, not so much.

You’ll recognize the less valid ones as those phrases and slogans that make their way into your social feeds (Boston Strong, Nasty Woman).

Ownership of such may bring on an eye roll or chuckle from a trademark attorney, but for most people it doesn’t seem so ridiculous. You may think, “someone has to own it, right? Why not me.” While this may seem valid, it (usually) isn’t. Trademarks are not “owned” that way.

Trademarks are words, phrases, logos, (or just about anything) used to identify the source of a product or service. They are “owned” if and only when they are used. They literally, and simply put, are MARKS that identify your TRADE. For instance, lets say you work for an accounting firm, a restaurant, or any other entity you can think of that involves trade of some kind. You are currently working under at least one trademark: the name of that business. (There are, of course, laws about when a word, phrase, logo, etc. is not a trademark, but don’t worry about that for now.) You all work under trademarks. The reason being, is that the mark is associated with whatever trade you or your business does. Once an association is formed between the mark and your trade, which happens almost immediately, a trademark is born. You then have rights in it.

The entire idea behind trademarks is that we live and work in an economy that encourages competition. And when competition is high, distinguishing yourself is important. People need to decide that they either like what you offer or they don’t, and then have a way to identify it. The next time they’re seeking out whatever it is you offer, whether accounting services, food from you restaurant, etc., it is important for them to have some identifier that tells them that they are buying your product — so they can either buy it or pass it by. Without identifiers we would all be blind consumers. Trademarks are critical to telling you what you’re getting.

Also, in addition to consumers, your business needs a trademark. If you audit businesses or own a burger joint, or whatever, and you’re the best in town, or even just good, you want —no, you need — people to know it. That’s how you succeed. If someone can come along and copy your name and steal your clientele, that’s a problem. Even if they don’t steal your clientele, they may offer a subpar product, and if consumers are confused about who offers what, your reputation may be ruined. You need a trademark that you can protect— and keep others from using.

So back to the “owning” of that hot, new slogan. What does that slogan identify? For most people it identifies nothing relevant to them or their business. Usually they’re hoping to make a quick buck (or many bucks). Unless your planning on undertaking a new venture and you’re going to use that slogan as an identifier for your product (Sam Adams), trying to “own” that slogan is probably a waste of time and money. Likely, there is little value in it.

Trademarks are not a novelty you can snatch up and get rich by. It’s true, trademarks can be quite valuable. That’s usually because the products they identify are valuable, and being able to properly identify them is very important. A mark attached to nothing is almost always of no value. And if you have an idea of a mark that is very similar to another mark that already identifies something of value, you probably shouldn’t use it  — unless you like receiving cease and desist letters (Under Armor).

So identify a trademark you want to use. Use that mark. (Register it!) But focus on what it is you want to offer to the consuming public, and then choose a mark to identify it — doing it the other way around will probably just waste your time and money. (That’s not to say you can’t, or shouldn’t, obtain rights in a mark before you offer whatever product you have, but that’s for another day and a different post.)