Many local business owners ask me if they need to trademark their business’ name or product by registering it with the federal trademark office. The answer is, “Not really.”

A trademark is legal protection for the trade name of a business or product. (A service mark is essentially a trademark for a business in the service sector; service marks are often a slogan.)

A common misconception is that owning a trademark means you own a word or phrase and others cannot use it. You don’t “own” the trademarked word or phrase in general; you own the right to exclude others from using it as applied to the goods or services you provide in your geographic area. So, for example, if you make a snow removal attachment for a lawn mower called a “Snow Cone,” you don’t completely own those words and cannot prevent an ice cream truck from selling “snow cones.”

The reason almost all local businesses don’t need to register a federal trademark is that under MCA 30-13-336 the business already has some state-law protections under the common law. In addition, a business can easily and inexpensively register its trademark with the state of Montana, which puts other businesses in the state on notice that you claim it. However, a state registration is effectively only in Montana. This is good enough for most local businesses.

Registering your trademark with the federal government protects your trademark throughout the country. However, a federal trademark is a much more complicated and expensive process than registering it with the state. Most local businesses don’t need nationwide trademark protection.

By the way, the “®” symbol after a word or phrase stands for “Registered” with the federal trademark office. The symbol “TM” means you’re claiming a state trademark. (You learn something new every day – especially when you read this blog.)

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(This information is of a general nature; exceptions to these general statements might exist. This information is for general educational purposes only; no attorney-client relationship with Overstreet Law Group, LLC is formed unless a person enters into a written representation agreement with the firm.)