A prevalent myth or misconception surrounding trademarks is the belief that a federal trademark registration issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is mandatory to protect a trademark. This misunderstanding may arise from a lack of knowledge about the United States’ dual trademark system, which recognizes both federal registration and common law rights. In reality, federal registration is not a requirement to establish and protect trademark rights in the United States, although it does offer significant advantages.
Under Lanham Act (US Trademark Law), trademark rights are based on the actual use of the trademark in commerce. When a business starts using a mark in connection with its goods or services, it automatically acquires common law trademark rights in the geographic area where the trademark is used. Common law rights can be enforced in state courts and provide a basic level of protection against infringement by others using a similar trademark for similar goods or services in the same geographic region. However, common law rights are limited in scope and may not provide sufficient protection, especially for businesses with broader commercial interests or aspirations to expand nationally.
While not mandatory, federal trademark registration with the USPTO offers several significant advantages over relying solely on common law rights. Some of the benefits of federal registration include:
Nationwide Protection: Federal registration grants the trademark owner exclusive rights to use the mark across the entire United States, regardless of the actual geographic extent of their use. This can be particularly valuable for businesses planning to expand their operations beyond their local market.
Public Notice: Registration serves as public notice of the trademark owner’s claim to the mark, making it easier for others to discover potential conflicts and avoid using a similar mark.
Presumption of Validity: A federal registration provides a legal presumption of the trademark owner’s exclusive right to use the mark, as well as the validity of the registration itself. This can be beneficial in litigation, as the burden of proof shifts to the opposing party to challenge the registration’s validity.
Incontestability: After five years of continuous use and the filing of a required affidavit, a federal registration can become incontestable, which strengthens the trademark owner’s rights and limits the grounds on which the registration can be challenged.
Deterrence: A registered mark is listed in the USPTO’s online database, which can deter potential infringers from adopting a similar mark for their goods or services.
Customs Enforcement: A registered trademark owner can record their registration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to prevent the importation of counterfeit goods or infringing products.
Right to Use the ® Symbol: Only federally registered trademarks are allowed to use the ® symbol, which informs the public that the mark is registered and protected.
Although a federal trademark registration is not mandatory, the benefits it provides can be invaluable for businesses seeking to protect their brand and minimize the risk of infringement. A registered trademark offers a higher level of protection, stronger legal rights, and greater enforceability than common law rights. Consequently, it is advisable for businesses to seriously consider federal registration to secure their trademark assets and support their long-term growth and success. If you need trademark assistance, we can help!