What Is a Trademark?
A trademark is a recognizable insignia, phrase, word, or symbol that denotes a specific product and legally differentiates it from all other products of its kind. A trademark exclusively identifies a product as belonging to a specific company and recognizes the company’s ownership of the brand.
Similar to a trademark, a service mark identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product, and the term “trademark” is often used to refer to both trademarks and service marks. Trademarks are generally considered a form of intellectual property.
A trademark can be a corporate logo, a slogan, a brand, or simply the name of a product. For example, few would think of bottling a beverage and naming it Coca Cola or of using the famous wave from its logo. It is clear by now that the name “Coca Cola,” and its logo belong to The Coca-Cola Company (KO).
Trademarking, however, does contain some fuzzy boundaries because it prohibits any marks that have a “likelihood of confusion” with an existing one. A business cannot thus use a symbol or brand name if it looks similar, sounds similar, or has a similar meaning to one that’s already on the books—especially if the products or services are related.
A trademark protects words and design elements that identify the source, owner, or developer of a product or service. Different than a trademark, a patent safeguards an original invention for a certain period of time, and there can be many different types of patents. Unlike patents, copyrights protect “works of authorship,” such as writing, art, architecture, and music.
Why Use a Trademark?
Individuals and companies have products or services trademarked to protect the product from being used without the permission of the source company. Most countries have patent laws that are designed to protect against copyright infringement. In the United States, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) serves this function.
Although most countries have agencies through which businesses can have their products trademarked, international copyright regulation is more complicated than in the U.S., as there exists no universally recognized patent office, rules, or consistency.
A company or individual does not need to register a trademark to receive protection rights, but there are certain legal benefits to registering the mark with the USPTO. Trademark and copyright law rarely overlap, but it can happen—for instance, when a graphic illustration is used as a logo, the design may be protected both under copyright and trademark law.
Trademarks can be bought and sold. Famously, Nike, Inc. (NKE) purchased the instantly recognizable Swoosh logo in 1971 from a graphic arts student for a one-time price of $35. Trademarks also can be licensed to other companies for an agreed-upon time or under certain conditions, which can result in crossover brands.
Read more: Copyright