Registering your trademarks with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office should be one of the first steps for all new companies (that’s of course, after conducting a comprehensive trademark search). However, allocating the necessary funds to adequately protect its trademarks may be a tricky endeavor for a new startup company. Frequently, companies with limited budgets only have enough money file a single trademark and thus, must decide whether it is best for them to file a trademark application for their business name or logo. Before making a decision, it is extremely important to consult a trademark attorney since every mark is different and requires its own legal analysis. However, there are a few general factors that should be considered in the decision-making process.
Conducting a trademark search before using a trademark in commerce should be a no-brainer for all companies looking to develop a successful and long-lasting brand. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a startup to create and fall in love with a company/brand name without conducting a proper trademark search only to then find out the mark is already being used by a prior user with superior rights.
Unlike many other countries, the United States has what is called a first-to-use trademark system. That means that the first entity to use the mark within a territory acquires a right of priority to use that mark over all subsequent users in that location. Under common law, the first user (a.k.a. “senior user”) has superior rights to use a mark within a territory, regardless whether or not it has been federally registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”). In fact, if a subsequent junior user registers an identical or similar mark with the USPTO, the prior senior user still has exclusive priority to use the mark in its territory as well as its zone of natural expansion. Nowadays, when it is very common to sell products and services over the Internet, that territory could be large and thus extensively limit the use of the junior user’s mark, even if it has been federally registered.