A company’s business name is one of its most important brand assets, so as a business owner you want to do everything you can to protect it. Not sure how to legally protect your business name? We’ve got you covered.
Disclaimer: This content should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Always consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific legal or tax situation.
How to legally protect your business name
Here are five steps to help make sure the name you choose for your business is legally yours to use and keep for the long run.
- Do your homework.
- Register the business name in your state.
- Secure a domain name.
- Trademark your brand.
- Protect your trademark.
Let’s jump in.
Important note: A business name is completely different from a trademark. Company names can be used as trademarks if they are associated with goods and services, but there are many company names that don’t end up as trademarks.
1. Do your homework
Have you thought of the perfect business name for your business only to do an online search and realize someone else is using it? Fortunately, just because you found another website using the name doesn’t necessarily mean you still can’t use it for your business.
Likewise, even if a search does not result in any other websites coming up with the business name you want, that does not mean you can retain the name for your own use.
Legally owning a business name starts with registering the business name in the state your business is located.
Related: GoDaddy guide to naming a business
2. Register the business name in your state
Registering a business name depends on the legal structure you chose for your business.
If you’re a sole proprietor and you’re using your legal name as the business’s name, you most likely don’t need to register the business name. However, you also won’t have the protections you would as an LLC or a corporation.
In all cases, if you are conducting business under a different name than the original one you chose, or if the sole proprietorship is your legal name, but you market your business as something more general, then you’ll also need to register the fictitious name, or the “Doing Business As” (DBA) name.
Each Secretary of State has the means to research to see if any other business located in your state is using the same name. You can also use a third-party search tool.
If you haven’t had time to fill out all the paperwork to register your entity in your state, you can still fill out a business name reservation request, so you have at least started the process of protecting your business name. Usually, a name reservation will place your chosen name on hold for 30 to 90 days.
You should also know that every state has restrictions on words you can use in your business name. For example, anything that implies the business is a governmental unit, a professionally licensed business (when it is not) or a name deceptively like another business name already registered is not allowed.
Also, merely registering the business name in your state does not protect you or give you any legal rights to the name at the federal level. However, it might show your intent to build and protect your brand with the United States Trademark and Patent Office (USPTO).
Securing a legal trademark at the federal level is how to stop other businesses from using your brand name.
3. Secure a domain name
Registering the domain name for your business — while you’ll likely use as its website address and for your business email — shows that you’re serious about protecting your brand.
Does it matter if the domain name isn’t exactly your business’s name? Of course, having the same domain name as your business name is ideal, but more and more business owners are finding exact names, especially with .com extensions, can be challenging to secure.
Luckily, domain registrars like GoDaddy offer many alternate extensions so you can still have your business name in the URL, but using a different extension such as .biz or .toys.
Want to see if your domain is available? Check now:
Related: How to buy a domain name
4. Trademark your brand
A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, design or several of these things put together that identifies your brand and distinguishes your goods and services from competitors. Once you begin applying for a trademark, you’ll soon learn how important the distinctiveness of your name, logo, tagline and description is to getting approval.
Before you start filling out the application make sure you have all the information you need at hand. Here are some of the items you’ll need to submit:
- If your application for a trademark includes your logo, you’ll need to add a descriptive statement about the mark in detail and upload a drawing or representation of the mark.
- You need to clearly identify the precise goods and/or services to which the mark will apply. The USPTO has a database of acceptable classifications to search through.
- After searching through the USPTO database to make sure no one else has a similar trademark, you must satisfy the requirements for a “filing basis.” In other words, you’ll need to show whether you are already using the name/mark or if you have the intent to use in the near future.
You may not think your brand name is close to another trademark already in use, but if the USPTO does, you’ll need to explain that to the office.
Once you’ve paid the application fee and sent in your online application, the USPTO will review and assign your application a serial number. Filing fees are nonrefundable. Any correspondence with the USPTO (office actions) will need to be responded to in a timely manner or they will assume you have abandoned the trademark.
5. Protect your trademark
If you’re lucky enough to have your trademark approved, it’s important to start using it in commerce (“usage”) right away and keep it in the public eye.
Use the name you trademark to brand your website, marketing materials, email, store signs and social media presence. Why?
Protection is granted and upheld by usage — and usage must be done in a high-quality manner. If you obtain the trademark and then don’t use it, someone else could make the argument you don’t deserve the protection and you could lose your rights.
The USPTO requires trademark owners to file a “Declaration of Use” between the fifth and sixth year following registration and then again between the ninth and tenth year. Then, you’ll be required to file an Application for Renewal to keep ownership of the trademark every 10 years.
Related: GoDaddy guide to building a brand
Your name is important to your business. Make sure you take the right legal steps to properly use and protect it. And, with these steps, you’ll be well on your way towards ensuring that you’ve protected your brand now and in the future.