Trademark law allows consumers to quickly identify what company is offering a product or service for sale and deciding whether they want to purchase from that company or continue shopping around.
What is a Trademark?
Examples of Famous Trademarks
A trademark can be any company name, slogan, brand, logo and more that acts as a source identifier of goods or services. In other words, anything that symbolizes to consumers who it is that is selling a product can function as a trademark.
Famous trademarks include many well known company names such as AMAZON and COCA-COLA. Famous trademarks also include logos such as McDonald’s “golden arches” or slogans such as Nike’s iconic phrase JUST DO IT.
Trademarks can also be colors (pink insulation is a registered trademark), sounds (the NBC chimes), and even smells. Nearly anything that triggers consumers to think about certain companies in connection with a product or service can be a trademark.
Trademarks are different from patents and copyrights, although they all fall under the umbrella of “intellectual property.” In short, patents protect inventions and copyrights protect creative works such as literature, music, and art.
History of Trademark Law
Trademark law has been around for hundreds of year. In America, trademark law can be traced back to the English common law tradition. The purpose of trademark law was to prevent consumers from buying counterfeit products because two trademark were confusingly similar and there was essentially no way to tell who was actually the company behind the product.
1. Common Law Trademark Rights
Although courts in England and early America protected trademarks, it was not until 1879 that the Supreme Court of the United States weighed in on trademark law. In the 1879 decision, the court stated that a trademark “is a property right for the violation of which damages may be recovered in an action at law…” In other words, companies could sue competitors that use the same or a similar trademark to confuse consumers and recover “damages” (usually money) for lost sales and the infringing companies profits.
Common law trademark rights are relatively limited in comparison to federal trademark rights granted by the Lanham Act. Common law trademarks are only protected against infringement in the local markets they are used, ownership is harder to prove, and it is more difficult to win a trademark infringement suit based solely on common law trademark rights.
2. Lanham Act and Statutory Trademark Rights
In 1946, the United States enacted the Lanham Act, also known as the Trademark Act, which was Congress’ way of making trademark law federal law rather than relying on judges to determine the rules around trademark use and what is or is not an infringing trademark. The Lanham Act set a standard for when a person or company is infringing on a trademark, what the remedies are in a successful trademark lawsuit, and, most importantly, set up the trademark registration system at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
The federal trademark registration revolutionized trademark law. Rather than relying solely on common law trademark rights, federally registered trademarks are proof of trademark ownership, the exclusive right to use a trademark anywhere in the United States, the right to use the ® symbol and many other benefits. All the most well known companies and brands own federal trademark registration so they can best protect their brands from trademark infringement, counterfeiting and more. Trademark registrations also make it easier to license or assign trademark rights.
It is important for companies to protect their most important trademarks, such as their company name, popular product names, brands, slogans, and logos, by applying for and receiving a federal trademark registration with the USPTO. The trademark application process and timeline can be confusing for people not familiar with the procedures. If you have any questions about obtaining a federal trademark registration, do not hesitate to contact Granite Trademark Services for a Free Trademark Consultation.
Purpose of Trademark Law
Trademark law developed for two main purposes. The first is to protect consumers so they know who is offering a product. The second is to protect brands from unfair competition, i.e. to stop copycats from riding a company’s coattails.
To protect consumers from purchasing fake or counterfeit products, trademark law tasks companies with policing and enforcing their trademark rights in the marketplace to keep their trademark rights. In other words, companies need to take action against trademark infringement rather than wait for the government to protect them. However, in some instance, the government will arrest counterfeiters from using registered trademarks to sell fake products such as if they find a shipment of fake Coach bags show up in a U.S. port.
1. Trademark Law Protects Consumers
The primary purpose of trademark law is to protect consumers, not protect companies that own trademarks. This may seem counter intuitive at first, but it makes sense when thinking about why common law originally protected trademarks.
To protect consumers from knock-offs of the most popular brands, common trademark law developed to prevent rip off companies from using trademarks that are likely to confuse consumers about who is offering the product or service. For example, a consumer who really liked iPhones and did not know how to use other smartphones would be frustrated if a bunch of companies named their smart phones "iPhones" because she would not know which products were the real deal and which were fakes.
Today trademark infringement cases try to answer the question of whether an alleged infringing trademark is “likely to confuse consumers” into mistakenly believing the product they purchased came from a different company.
2. Trademark Law Protects Companies and Brands
The ancillary benefit of protecting consumers from mistakenly purchasing copycat and rip off brands is that companies can grow, build and protect their brands from competitors. Without trademark law, it would be near impossible for brands to develop relationships with consumers and grow a reputation for reliable products or services.
For example, if ROLEX could not protect its brand name, they would not be able to prevent companies from selling fake Rolex, “faux-lex,” watches. This would ultimately hurt consumers because they may pay over a thousand dollars for a watch that does not even accurately keep time. But it would also hurt Rolex because they could not develop a reputation among consumers of only using the finest parts, incorporating the most up to date watch technology, using only authentic gold and more. Rolex can sell watches for thousands of dollars in large part because the respect their brand has earned worldwide.
Do you have any questions about the background of trademark law, its history or want to find out how to best protect your trademarks? Contact us today and one of our attorneys will contact you within twenty-four hours for a Free Trademark Consultation.