Starting a business is a very exciting time and if you’ve just started on that path then I congratulate you on taking the first important steps on your journey. Before getting started however you need to choose a name for your new business, but what if your name is taken already? How can you check and what to do if it is?
There are various places to check if your brand name is taken like the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), local trademark offices, assumed business name databases, online search engines and social media platforms, etc.
This can be a frustrating endeavor to say the least if you’re new to the process. This article is designed to help you with the process and make things as easy as possible for you.
Why it’s important to check if your brand name is taken
There are many reasons why you would want to avoid having a brand name that is already taken.
Trademark law basically prevents two competing companies from having the same, or similar, names.
Having similar names can cause confusion, whether intentionally or unintentionally, among customers and hurt one brand while benefiting another.
Having the same, or similar name as a trademarked brand, can lead to you being sued for trademark infringement. You will be forced to change your name along and possibly have to financially compensate the other company for damages.
One thing to note about the trademark law that is worth mentioning is that the industries of the brands in question also play a vital role. If your brand falls in a different industry than the other brand, you will be allowed to use the same or similar brand name. For example Delta Airlines. If you’re starting a plumbing service, you could call it “Delta Plumbing Services” as it in a different industry and therefore won’t violate any trademark laws regarding Delta Airlines.
Avoid Willful Infringement Liability
Even if you didn’t know or didn’t check the federal trademark database, you can be sued for “willful infringement” by a trademark owner if your brand name infringes upon their trademark.
Willful infringement is considered as “knowingly violating someone else’s trademark” and carries heavier penalties than other forms of trademark infringement violations.
Aside from reasons to avoid legal repercussions from using a brand name that is taken, there are some reasons related to branding and marketing best practices.
One of those reasons is to avoid confusion among customers in the marketplace.
Having a unique brand name is a key factor in setting your brand apart from the competition in the marketplace. Having the same or a very similar brand name than a competitor can hinder your progress in differentiating yourself from that competitor.
Where and how to check if your brand name is taken
Since you probably don’t want to get sued for using a brand name that’s already taken, best to check and make sure you choose a unique name for your brand.
How and where to check can pose its own set of challenges. Below is a list of where and how to check to set you on the right path to your unique brand name.
Online Search Engines
The internet, especially Google, has become the go-to place for information in our world today for most people.
Google, or other search engines on the internet, would be a great place to start when trying to find out whether a brand name is already taken. If your name is taken, chances are that business will have a website, social media channels, published content about the company, etc.
If you don’t find anything online regarding the brand name you are after, don’t celebrate just quite yet, there are a few other places to look as your name might still be taken even though they don’t have any online presence.
Assumed Business Name Database
Assumed, or fictitious, business name databases contain unregistered trademarks of very small businesses that you probably won’t be able to find anywhere else.
The best approach to find out if your brand name might be in one of these databases is to check your local county clerk’s office as they would be able to provide you with these details.
If your desired brand name appears on one of these registers, you probably should not use it to avoid any violations and possible legal issues.
USPTO’s trademark database
One of the best places to look at your brand name is taken and trademarked by another company, which is the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database on their website.
From the website, you can perform various lookup tasks to see if your brand name is not trademarked.
Head over to TESS, where you’ll be given a few options. Searching for a trademarked name only or searching for a design mark like a logo for example. For design marks, you will have to check out your design code using USPTO’s Design Search Code Manual.
Basic Work Mark Search
The basic word mark search will filter and show you results for trademarked brand names and other copyrighted words and phrases.
It also allows you to search for plurals of your brand name. Words that sound like your brand name but with different spelling, however, will not be shown and you will need to search for all those possible variations manually.
You can look for your exact brand name or any trademark that contains some or all of the words in your brand name.
Word and Design Mark Search
The word and design mark will allow you to search and filter beyond just the name of the brand or company, but also for all similar trademark phrases or logos used in a variety of collaterals like letterheads or product packaging for example.
http://tess2.uspto.gov/tmdb/dscm/index.htmBefore conducting a design mark search, check out USPTO’s Design Search Code Manual to get a better understanding of how the search works.
Local Trademark Office
If your search using the USPTO has left you with some doubts or you felt unsatisfied, you can try searching in your local trademark office. Each state usually has an agency that manages the company or corporate names.
Aside from official trademarked brand names, there are also unregistered names that you have to look out for.
Unregistered trademarks are trademarks that are not registered with USPTO or any of the state trademark offices. People who own these unregistered trademarks nonetheless have legal rights as these trademarks are protected under laws concerning unfair competition. These rights, however, are limited to the geographical area in which their business operates.
Internet & Social Media
Similar to registered trademarks, the internet is a great place to start.
Using search engines like Google can instantly show you from thousands to millions of search results that can help you find out whether your desired brand name is already taken and being used by another company.
It would be safe to say that the vast majority of businesses today have some kind of, even if it’s small, online presence. Although this might be the case, if your search comes up empty you might not be completely in the clear just yet and there are other places to look whether your brand name is taken.
Social media is another great place to look.
Using the search function on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, etc, acts as a search engine similar to Google and can yield thousands to millions of search results to see if your brand name is taken or not.
The Thomas Register
The Thomas Register website is a cross-industry database of trademarks and a great tool to use if you can’t find anything on your particular brand name anywhere else.
That being said, if it doesn’t show up on your search results on thomasnet.com, it doesn’t mean it’s not taken. Just another one to cross off your list of places to look for unregistered trademarks.
What to do if your brand name is taken
Once you found that your desired brand name is taken, there are only really two options that you have if you don’t want to end up being sued.
You can either try to buy the trademark from the owner of that trademarked brand name or you have to choose another name.
Try to buy it
There are many reasons why you would want to buy a trademark from someone else, but this can be a very tricky and expensive endeavor.
It’s highly unlikely that a company will sell its trademarked name over to you if they’ve spent months or years building up their brand around that brand name.
There are cases however where someone has registered a trademark for a brand name and not yet built a company on that brand yet. They might still be quite hesitant to sell it and if they do, it might end up being for a hefty fee.
Tesla is the perfect example of this. Elon Musk revealed that the company was almost called Faraday, their backup brand name since Tesla Motors was trademarked n 1994 by a man named Brad Siewart. Siewart was not willing to sell the trademark and it took a lot of effort from Elon Musk and his new company to finally convince Siewart to sell the trademark to them. The trademark was sold for $75,000.
Tesla also had difficulties acquiring the tesla.com domain name and it took them more than 10 years to secure at a cost of $11 million.
Choose another name
The other option, and probably the most viable option for most people, is to choose another name for your brand that’s not taken.
Here are a few pro tips for choosing a brand name:
Keep it Simple
Simplicity is always key when working in branding and marketing.
Brand names are no different and it’s always best to have a simple brand name. It makes it easier to read, understand, remember, and recall. Just think of Apple, Nike, Amazon, Netflix, etc.
Simple doesn’t mean that it has to be boring, which brings us to the next tip.
Make it Unique
Having a unique name can help tremendously in setting you apart from the competition in the marketplace.
Some great examples of companies with unique names are Uber, Apple, Microsoft, The Boring Company, Amazon, etc.
Make it Memorable
The more memorable your brand name is, the more like people will recall and remember your brand.
Great examples of memorable brand names are Tesla, Apple, Uber, Amazon, etc.
Make it Descriptive
Making your brand name as descriptive as possible of the products or services you offer will help to avoid confusion about your brand. Although this is not always the rule with successful brands, it can really help you when starting out.
Netflix is a good example of this.
Don’t Limit Yourself
Limiting yourself with your brand name can end up hurting you later down the line if you want to expand your product or service offering for example.
Tesla is a great example of this when they decided to shorten their name from Tesla Motors to Tesla in 2017, because of their product and service offerings beyond car manufacturing to include solar, batteries, and software. The shortened name now reflects the company as an energy company rather than just an electric car manufacturer.
Whether you’re just starting out or decided to change your brand name as part of a rebranding effort, for which I would suggest you check out our article on how marketers do a rebrand, choosing a brand name can be quite a challenging step.
It is important to do the due diligence to ensure that your desired brand name is not taken and being used by another company, for which you could face quite severe legal penalties or damages to your brand for using the same name.
So make sure your name is available, choose wisely, stay safe and happy branding!