One commonly asked question is: “Can I copyright my name/business name?” The quick answer is no. Copyright law protects the expression of ideas (e.g. books, songs, photographs or films) not the ideas themselves. As such, the U.S. Copyright Office identifies names, titles, slogans, or short phrases as unprotected under U.S. copyright law.
Really, what you are asking is: “How can I stop other people from using my name/business name?”
Option 1. Registering your business name
It is possible to register your business name with a government agency (e.g. the California Secretary of State or the San Francisco City Treasurer). However, this gives you very limited protection. All the agency is doing is stating that the name is different from any other name in that agency’s database. For example, if I wanted to register my business “San Francisco Film Co.” with the San Francisco City Treasurer, all they are going to determine is that no other business exists with that name within San Francisco. They are not going to look at Oakland, Marin, or New York. As such, this will not protect someone from registering my film company name anywhere outside of San Francisco.
Option 2. Obtain a Trademark
I like to think of trademarks as badge that tell me that X product comes from X source. As such, a trademark can consist of any words, names, symbols, or devices, in any combinations, which identify the source of the goods or services. However, to obtain U.S. federal trademark protection you must be using a distinctive mark in interstate commerce.
What is a distinctive mark? First, it must be something that is not generic or describe what you are doing. For example, I couldn’t get a trademark for Kiffanie’s house painting service for a house painting business. Second, it must not be similar to any earlier marks for the same type of goods or services. Here, I couldn’t get a trademark for a soda brand named Koka-Kola.
What is interstate commerce? In our modern era, this test is becoming less burdensome for small business owners. You must be selling your goods (or providing your services) across state lines. As such, you’ve met the test if you’ve sold your jewelry in stores in San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago.
While obtaining a trademark is much more expensive than registering your business name, it provides far greater protection for your core concern: stopping someone else from using your name.
[Image courtesy of TooFarNorth. Some rights reserved.]
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