When you own a business, you want it to stand out. If you have an idea to make your business recognizable with a slogan, phrase, design, or symbol—even if you haven't launched your business yet—be sure you protect your idea from others who may want to use it by following these steps.
How to Protect an Idea
First, if all you have is an idea, you may not be able to trademark it. You must commit the idea to some tangible form, like a recognizable mark or a slogan, such as the "Golden Arches" of McDonald's. People worldwide recognize the Golden Arches—there's no mistaking that symbol for any other company.
To protect your idea, take these steps:
- Keep the idea to yourself or share it only with people very close to you who will not reveal it to anyone else.
- Create something tangible from the idea, such as a logo, brand colors, a slogan, or a combination of them for your business.
- Hire an intellectual property attorney and ask them to prepare a nondisclosure agreement so your confidential information will remain secret. Under the agreement, anyone who fails to keep the information confidential may face legal consequences.
- Have your attorney also prepare a non-compete agreement, which is often used to protect employers from competition from their employees but can also be used to protect you from people with competing ideas. ?
- Have your attorney search for similar trademarks and then file for a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Pay the filing fee. Submit your mark to the USPTO by using drawings or computer-generated pictures. Make sure your logo or other design is unique, and describe the goods or services it will represent.
- Start using the logo, slogan, design, or symbol for your business while you wait for the USPTO to accept your trademark registration.
- If the USPTO accepts your application, look out for other companies that may try to copy your trademark. You may have to send them a cease and desist letter because, once you own the trademark, your mark has priority, even if they used their similar mark first.
Benefits of Getting a Trademark
Filing or registering a trademark is not actually necessary if you're using the logo, slogan, or design in your business, which gives you ownership of the mark. However, without a trademark, you're taking a big risk that someone else will use or steal the mark.
Having a trademark allows you to:
- Claim exclusive ownership of the mark
- Sue for trademark infringement if someone else uses your mark after you trademark it
- Notify the public that the mark is yours and belongs to your business
- List your business and mark with the USPTO
- Use symbols after your mark, such as ®
Because you want the USPTO to accept your trademark registration—a process that includes submitting several forms—it's a good idea to have an intellectual property attorney file the registration for you. If you don't want to do a trademark search yourself, you can have your attorney or online legal service do it for you.
While ideas cannot be trademarked by themselves, once you use your ideas in a tangible way, you can file for trademark protection. It's worthwhile to do so, as it prevents you from having to change your company colors, logos, stationery, and other products if someone else has a similar trademark.
The USPTO denies similar trademarks to prevent confusion between your company and someone else's. Because of such benefits, getting a trademark is one of the best things you can do for your idea—and your business.
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