Trademark Violations & Customs

by Thomas King
Trademarks help customers identify the designer of a product.

Trademarks help customers identify the designer of a product.

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According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, a trademark includes "any word, name, symbol, device or combination, used to identify and distinguish the goods or services of one seller or provider from those of others." Trademark infringement can occur when importing a good into the United States. In these cases, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office may become involved.

Trademark Infringement

A trademark infringement occurs when a person uses a registered trademark, or a substantially similar mark, without the permission of the trademark holder. For example, if a company sells hamburgers wrapped in a package containing a yellow "M" with the word McDonald's underneath it, the company is likely committing trademark infringement, as McDonald's hold a trademark to this mark. Moreover, if a company sells a hamburger wrapped in a package containing a brown letter "M," the company may still be committing infringement, as the mark is similar enough to cause consumer confusion with respect to the source of the goods.

Importation of Goods

With very limited exceptions, trademark protections extend to the importation of goods that simulate a trademark registered with the USPTO. Thus, if the hamburger company is based out of China and imports a hamburger wrapped in a package containing a yellow letter "M" with the word McDonald's underneath into the United States, the company is likely committing trademark infringement.

Gray Market Goods

Even importing goods that bear a valid U.S. trademark constitutes an act of trademark infringement if the importer has not obtained permission from the trademark holder. These goods, which are referred to as "gray market goods," can be seized by ICE.

Online Services

It is not always easy to tell if a mark is substantially similar to a registered trademark. Consequently, it is advisable to consult a trademark attorney prior to importing goods that may infringe upon a registered trademark. Or online legal document preparation and filing services can conduct an extensive trademark search on your behalf.