Let's say you've come up with an original, creative shirt design and you'd like to sell it. Before you invest in this new project, it's a good idea to protect your unique design so that others can't copy it and profit from your creativity and hard work. The best way to prevent copying is to apply for federal trademark registration. Here's how.
Step 1. Be sure you can register your design.
A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, or design that identifies and distinguishes one party's products from another's. To be registrable as a trademark, your shirt design must be unique, not generic, and not likely to be confused with another design that is already registered or for which an application is pending. According to the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) publication Basic Facts About Trademarks, likelihood of confusion with other trademarks is the most common ground for refusal of a trademark application.
Step 2. Choose your format.
Every trademark application includes a drawing of the proposed mark. When you file your application, you must select a format for your design drawing. The USPTO gives you two options: a standard character drawing or a stylized/design drawing (also called a "special form" drawing).
If your shirt design is only words, letters, or numbers, you would choose a standard character drawing. But, because a standard form mark cannot include any design element or stylization of letters or numbers, most likely a special form drawing will be more appropriate. If your design includes words, you must include them in your drawing.
If you submit your drawing in black and white, it will be protected in any colors you eventually choose to use. If color is an important part of your design, however, your drawing should be in those colors and your application should identify the colors by name and indicate where they appear in the design.
Step 3. Choose your category.
Your trademark application must identify the category of goods on which you intend to use your design. Search the USPTO's Acceptable Identification of Goods and Services Manual to be sure you choose the correct one for the type of shirts you plan to sell. For example, there are separate categories for tee shirts, henley shirts, pique shirts, camouflage shirts, knit shirts, and a number of others.
Step 4. Conduct a search for similar designs.
Likelihood of confusion with another registered mark is the death knell for your trademark hopes, so before you file an application, it is critical to search the USPTO's online database for the same or substantially similar designs. The search engine allows you to search registered trademarks and prior pending applications for designs like yours. The results, however, can sometimes be overwhelming to sort through, and it can be hard to determine what is confusingly similar. Online legal service providers can help make this process more manageable.
Step 5. Select your filing basis.
Your application must specify whether you are seeking trademark protection on the basis of your current use of your design in commerce or on your intent to use it in commerce in the future. If you are already selling shirts with your design, your basis would be "use in commerce." If, on the other hand, you have not begun to sell shirts, your basis would be "intent to use." If you file based on your intent to use, you will eventually have to submit further information and pay additional fees before your design is registered.
Step 6. Prepare and file your trademark application.
You can file your application to register a trademark for your shirt design online using the USPTO's Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) or through an online legal service provider. You also have to pay a nonrefundable application fee.
If you submit your application through TEAS, you have the option to choose from the TEAS Plus, TEAS Reduced Fee, and TEAS Regular forms. Once you submit your application, the USPTO recommends that you check your application status online every three or four months. The entire registration process can take up to a year or longer.
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