The Common Law

Trademark My Small Business?

I started a small business, and several people have told me to trademark the name. What is a trademark, and how would it help my business?

People encounter trademarks all the time, whether they know it or not. When was the last time you drank Coke, ate a Big Mac, or logged on to your Dell computer? People often go through their daily routine and don't consider the trademark laws that underscore and protect familiar words and images that identify commonly used products and services.

A trademark, as defined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is "a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others." If that definition is hard to swallow, try thinking of a trademark as a brand name that can be a distinctive word, phrase, slogan, symbol, or other device that can easily identify and distinguish the product from others.

Classic examples of a trademark can include everything from coffee (Starbucks) and fast food (Taco Bell) to sneakers (Nike) and handbags (Prada). One of the fundamental purposes of trademark law is to inform potential customers of the origin and quality of the product being offered. A service mark is similar to a trademark, except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product.

As a small-business owner, trademark law can protect your business from competitors stealing your identity or using a name or symbol so similar that it could cause confusion for your clients or customers. In short, a trademark or service mark serves to protect consumers from deception.

Be sure to read "The Common Law" over the next few weeks to learn more about trademarks, including the nuts and bolts of obtaining a trademark and the benefits of trademark protection. In the interim, if you need answers to specific trademark questions or want to know more about trademarks in general, contact the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Assistance Center at 800/786-9199 or go to their website,

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Johns, Marrs, Ellis. & Hodge LLP,

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or

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