What is a trademark?

Your business name and logo are valuable, recognisable assets and, without being trademarked, are vulnerable to abuse. Learn to protect your brand by understanding trademark definition and why you should use a trademark.

 

Trademark definition – what is a trademark?

Any individual or business can register a trademark. In the UK, trademarks are registered with the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) and provide legal protection for words, symbols and signs that are unique identifiers of your business. Anything that differentiates your products and services from those of other businesses can be registered, such as company logos, words and phrases.

Trademarks can be used on everything from products and packaging to building signs and livery on company vehicles. When your business uses its trademark, it can display the relevant trademark symbol:

The letter R within a circle – ® – shows the icon, sign or phrase is a registered trademark. The abbreviation RTM (Registered Trade Mark) can also be used.

The letters TM in superscript – TM – denotes an unregistered trademark symbol. It’s used by brands that are in the process of registering the trademark.

Why register a trademark?

Trademarks play a crucial role in establishing and protecting brands. Some of the world’s most iconic brands – from Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ to the golden arches of McDonald’s – rely on trademarks to protect the goodwill and value that a brand delivers to a business.

Trademarks help customers identify your business and the products or services you sell. Once registered, only your business can use that trademark and you can take legal action should someone use it without permission. It also protects against similar trademarks being registered that could confuse customers, for example a new business registering a similar fast food burger name and sign to your already-established fast food business.

Registering your business with Companies House or running a branded website doesn’t provide protection for your brand. Even though you’ve registered your business, anyone can use your business name and logo unless it’s trademarked.

It’s worth applying to register your trademark to check it doesn’t infringe on any existing trademarks. If a similar trademark has already been registered, you may have to change your logo or even rename your business.

Worse, an unregistered trademark can leave your business vulnerable. It’s possible for someone else to trademark your existing business name and logo, forcing you to stop using it. You can rely on a defence of ‘unregistered rights’ if you’ve been using the logo for a while, but this can be expensive to legally defend.

What can be used as a trademark?

You can register any combination of marks that uniquely differentiate your business from others. Trademarks can include symbols, shapes, signatures, images, logos, words, phrases and even sounds. You can’t trademark words that are descriptive or are characteristic of the service or product you offer, such as trying to trademark the name WATER for a bottled water brand. A trademark must be unique.

How long does a trademark last?

The good news is that a trademark can last indefinitely. However, once registered you must use it and apply to renew it every ten years. Other businesses can apply for your trademark to be removed from the register if it isn’t being used.

Are trademarks limited to the UK?

Trademarks registered in the UK apply to just the UK. You’ll need to register your trademark everywhere outside the UK you sell goods or services to protect your trademark abroad.

The European Union has a centralised system for registering a trademark across all EU member states. You can apply for a European Trademark (EUTM) at the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).

If you plan on selling outside the EU, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) based in Geneva, Switzerland, allows you to register a trademark in the 113 countries that are part of The Madrid Protocol.

It’s worth checking if you need to register your trademark in the countries involved in the manufacture of your goods. Some countries may consider manufacturing a product then shipping it to another country as trademark use – opening you up to local trademark infringement, even if you don’t sell your product in that country.

How to register a UK trademark

You can register a trademark in the UK at the UK Intellectual Property Office, though it’s worth using a chartered trademark attorney to help with the application. You can find a list of chartered attorneys at The Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys.

Unregistered trademarks and ‘passing off’

If you haven’t registered a trademark, you may be able to use the English common law of ‘passing off’ to protect your business. This is designed to stop one business from misrepresenting the services or goods as those of another business or claiming to have a connection with your business if that isn’t the case.

Pursuing a passing off claim is difficult and costly. You’ll need to prove that you own the disputed mark, that there has been goodwill created in the mark, and that your business has suffered proven harm because of the passing off.

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