Nerve-wracked over trying to pick a business name? It’s understandable. Your business’s name is the first thing many people notice. In your quest to choose a great, standout name, make sure you aren’t picking a name someone else has already claimed.
Stake your claim
As a business owner, it’s important to understand some trademark basics. You can trademark a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination thereof, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. Having a trademark provides certain rights–most importantly, to protect your brand from unauthorized use. This is intended to prevent companies from capitalizing on the popularity of a competitor’s brand, and ensures customers know exactly who they are doing business with.
Choosing a name that is too similar to a competitor could lead to a cease and desist letter, and even a trademark infringement lawsuit. You could end up with unexpected legal bills, and you’d be back at square one for naming.
Play the name game
The only way to avoid the above dilemma is to do some digging. Bring out your inner archaeologist and find out if another business is using a similar name. While conducting a name search isn’t a hard task, it is time consuming. Not all names are registered and this can cause some issues as well. Businesses can secure trademarks just by using their names; registration isn’t always necessary. Since there isn’t a single place to search for names that are already taken, it may be helpful to use several different methods to hunt for registered and unregistered business names:
Major search engines to the rescue
You may find it helpful to make use of major search engines to perform a quick query on a potential business name, especially if you’re trying to root out out unregistered names. It’s relatively easy to type in a few name ideas to scout for potential competitors who might be using the same moniker.
The US Patent & Trademark Office is your friend
You can search federally registered trademarks by using the free search tool provided by the US Patent & Trademark Office. The service is easy to use, and the information provided can help you avoid being sued for “willful infringement” on someone else’s registered trademark. A lawsuit can occur even if you don’t check the registry, but it’s much better to avoid trouble by making use of this handy, free service.
States also maintain a trademark registry. They usually maintain the database via the Secretary of State’s Office website, although some states do maintain a separate website. Also, states have databases of corporate, LLC, and partnerships, so be sure to check these registries as well to help avoid any name-related conflicts.
Searching for an unregistered business name
Search engines are helpful for finding an unregistered business name, but there are other resources you can check as well. The Thomas Register is a free multi-industry database that includes a listing of numerous trademarks. This list isn’t all-inclusive; no listing could be. However, it does provide a great resource for businesses who want to ensure they aren’t trespassing on another business’s domain.
Choosing your business name
Once you’ve exhausted all search options, you’ll be well prepared to choose a name for your business (and maybe even inspired by clever name choices you’ve seen). If your chosen name appears to be free and clear, then great. However, if the name is already taken, there are some situations where it might be appropriate to still use it. Federally registered names are a no-go, but names that are used by companies in unrelated industries may not be off-limits.
For instance, unregistered names used by similar businesses that are in different states or localities may be fair game. A lawn care service in one city can share a similar name with another that does business 50 miles away. Neither business is worried about the other because they aren’t competing for customers. That said, if you ever have questions, an intellectual property lawyer can look at your situation and guide you around any potential legal hurdles.
Choosing an appropriate name for your business is important, and it does require some active searching. However, it doesn’t have to be a huge chore. If you already have a business name or two in mind, a due diligence search can be completed over the course of a couple days. Stay flexible and creative, and you’ll have a name in no time.
For more help, check out the Rocket Lawyer intellectual property center.