A trademark or trade mark (represented by the symbol ™) or mark is a distinctive sign or indicator of some kind which is used by an individual, business organization or other legal entity to identify uniquely the source of its products and/or services to consumers, and to distinguish its products or services from those of other entities. A trademark is a type of intellectual property, and typically a name, word, phrase, logo, symbol, design, image, or a combination of these elements. There is also a range of non-conventional trademarks comprising marks which do not fall into these standard categories.
The owner of a registered trademark may commence legal proceedings for trademark infringement to prevent unauthorized use of that trademark. However, registration is not required. The owner of a common law trademark may also file suit, but an unregistered mark may be protectable only within the geographical area within which it has been used or in geographical areas into which it may be reasonably expected to expand.
The term trademark is also used informally to refer to any distinguishing attribute by which an individual is readily identified, such as the well known characteristics of celebrities. When a trademark is used in relation to services rather than products, it may sometimes be called a service mark, particularly in the United States.
The essential function of a trademark is to exclusively identify the commercial source or origin of products or services, such that a trademark, properly called, indicates source or serves as a badge of origin. The use of a trademark in this way is known as trademark use. Certain exclusive rights attach to a registered mark, which can be enforced by way of an action for trademark infringement, while unregistered trademark rights may be enforced pursuant to the common law tort of passing off.
It should be noted that trademark rights generally arise out of the use and/or registration (see below) of a mark in connection only with a specific type or range of products or services. Although it may sometimes be possible to take legal action to prevent the use of a mark in relation to products or services outside this range (e.g. for passing off), this does not mean that trademark law prevents the use of that mark by the general public. A common word, phrase, or other sign can only be removed from the public domain to the extent that a trademark owner is able to maintain exclusive rights over that sign in relation to certain products or services, assuming there are no other trademark objections. For a case study in both concepts, see Apple Corps and its disputes with Apple, Inc.
Terminology and symbolsEdit
Terms such as "mark", "brand" and "logo" are sometimes used interchangeably with "trademark". However, the terms "brands" and "branding" raise distinct conceptual issues and are generally more appropriate for use in a marketing or advertising context.
Specialized types of trademark include certification marks, collective trademarks and defensive trademarks. A trademark which is popularly used to describe a product or service (rather than to distinguish the product or services from those of third parties) is sometimes known as a genericized trademark. If such a mark becomes synonymous with that product or service to the extent that the trademark owner can no longer enforce its proprietary rights, the mark becomes generic.
As any sign which is capable of performing the essential trademark function may qualify as a trademark, the trademark concept extends to include a range of non-conventional signs such as shapes (three-dimensional trademarks), sounds, smells, moving images (e.g., signs denoting movement, motion or animation), taste, and perhaps even texture. Although the extent to which non-conventional trademarks can be protected or even recognised varies considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, shape marks and sound marks are examples of non-conventional marks which are in the process of migrating out of this category.
The ™ symbol may be used when trademark rights are claimed in relation to a mark, but the mark has not been registered with the government trademarks office of a particular country or jurisdiction, while the ® is used to indicate that the mark has been so registered. It is not mandatory to use either symbol, although the force of convention is such that the symbols are widely used around the world. In some jurisdictions, use of the ® symbol is highly advisable (provided that the mark is actually registered) as it can help in claiming damages from an infringer if the trade mark has to be enforced through the relevant Court. However, in various jurisdictions it is unlawful to use the ® symbol in association with a mark when that mark is not registered. Either symbol is typically placed in the top left- or right-hand corner of a mark.
Users of computers running a Linux-based system can enter the ™ and ® characters into text by pushing Alt Gr, Shift and the R or 8 key. Microsoft Windows users can enter them by holding down the Alt key and typing 0153 and 0174 respectively into the numeric keypad. (See Alt codes). Those running Mac OS can hold down the Option key then type 2 for ™ or hold Option then type r for ®.
Establishing trademark rightsEdit
The law considers a trademark to be a form of property. Proprietary rights in relation to a trademark may be established through actual use in the marketplace, or through registration of the mark with the trademarks office (or "trademarks registry") of a particular jurisdiction, e.g., the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In many jurisdictions, trademark rights can be established through either or both means. Certain jurisdictions generally do not recognize trademarks rights arising through use (e.g. China or European Union). If trademark owners do not hold registrations for their marks in such jurisdictions, the extent to which they will be able to enforce their rights through trademark infringement proceedings will therefore be limited. In cases of dispute, this disparity of rights is often referred to as "first to file" as opposed to "first to use". Other countries such as Germany offer a limited amount of common law rights for unregistered marks where to gain protection, the goods or services must occupy a highly significant position in the marketplace - where this could be 40% or more market share for sales in the particular class of goods or services.
A registered trademark confers a bundle of exclusive rights upon the registered owner, including the right to exclusive use of the mark in relation to the products or services for which it is registered. The law in most jurisdictions also allows the owner of a registered trademark to prevent unauthorized use of the mark in relation to products or services which are identical or "colourfully" similar to the "registered" products or services, and in certain cases, prevent use in relation to entirely dissimilar products or services. The test is always whether a consumer of the goods or services will be confused as to the identity of the source or origin. An example maybe a very large multinational brand such as "Sony" where a non-electronic product such as a pair of sunglasses might be assumed to have come from Sony Corporation of Japan despite not being a class of goods that Sony has rights in.
Once trademark rights are established in a particular jurisdiction, these rights are generally only enforceable in that jurisdiction, a quality which is sometimes known as territoriality. However, there is a range of international trademark laws and systems which facilitate the protection of trademarks in more than one jurisdiction (see International trademark laws below).
To avoid conflicts with earlier trademark rights, it is highly recommended to conduct trademark searches before the trademarks office (or "trademarks registry") of a particular jurisdiction—e.g. US Patent and Trademark Office. It may also be advisable to conduct a broader search as well, including databases that contain names of registered companies and also an Internet search to determine if the desired trademark is either already registered as a domain name or otherwise being used. The reason for this is because trademark offices typically only search issued trademarks and pending applications in order to determine whether a trademark should issue. For business reasons, however, an applicant may want to consider a different trademark even if it could be registered if the domain name is taken or other businesses are using the trademark as an unregistered name or slogan.
In the United States, obtaining a trademark search and relying upon the results is also very important because it can insulate the applicant from any future finding that you willfully infringed the trademark of another. Essentially, if you obtain a search and in good faith feel the use of a mark would not be infringing it will be virtually impossible for anyone to prove later that you purposefully engaged in infringing activities.
In Europe and if a community trademark has to be filed, searches have to be conducted with the OHIM (Community Trademark Office) and with the various national offices. An alternative solution is to conduct a trademark search within private databases.
In most systems, a trademark will be registrable if it is able to distinguish the goods or services of a party, will not confuse consumers about the relationship between one party and another, and will not otherwise deceive consumers with respect to the qualities of the product.
Maintaining trademark rightsEdit
Trademarks rights must be maintained through actual lawful use of the trademark. These rights will cease if a mark is not actively used for a period of time, normally 5 years in most jurisdictions. In the case of a trademark registration, failure to actively use the mark in the lawful course of trade, or to enforce the registration in the event of infringement, may also expose the registration itself to become liable for an application for the removal from the register after a certain period of time on the grounds of "non-use". It is not necessary for a trademark owner to take enforcement action against all infringement if it can be shown that the owner perceived the infringement to be minor and inconsequential. This is designed to prevent owners from continually being tied up in litigation for fear of cancellation. An owner can at any time commence action for infringement against a third party as long as it had not previously notified the third party of its discontent following third party use and then failed to take action within a reasonable period of time (called acquiescence). The owner can always reserve the right to take legal action until a court decides that the third party had gained notoriety which the owner 'must' have been aware of. It will be for the third party to prove their use of the mark is substantial as it is the onus of a company using a mark to check they are not infringing previously registered rights. In the US, owing to the overwhelming number of unregistered rights, trademark applicants are advised to perform searches not just of the trademark register but of local business directories and relevant trade press. Specialized search companies perform such tasks prior to application.
All jurisdictions with a mature trademark registration system provide a mechanism for removal in the event of such non use, which is usually a period of either three or five years. The intention to use a trademark can be proven by a wide range of acts as shown in the Wooly Bull and Ashton v Harlee cases.
In the U.S., failure to use a trademark for this period of time, aside from the corresponding impact on product quality, will result in abandonment of the mark, whereby any party may use the mark. An abandoned mark is not irrevocably in the public domain, but may instead be re-registered by any party which has re-established exclusive and active use, and must be associated or linked with the original mark owner. If a court rules that a trademark has become "generic" through common use (such that the mark no longer performs the essential trademark function and the average consumer no longer considers that exclusive rights attach to it), the corresponding registration may also be ruled invalid.
For examples, see trademark distinctiveness.
Enforcing trademark rightsEdit
The extent to which a trademark owner may prevent unauthorized use of trademarks which are the same as or similar to its trademark depends on various factors such as whether its trademark is registered, the similarity of the trademarks involved, the similarity of the products and/or services involved, and whether the owner’s trademark is well known.
If a trademark has not been registered, some jurisdictions (especially Common Law countries) offer protection for the business reputation or goodwill which attaches to unregistered trademarks through the tort of passing off. Passing off may provide a remedy in a scenario where a business has been trading under an unregistered trademark for many years, and a rival business starts using the same or a similar mark.
If a trademark has been registered, then it is much easier for the trademark owner to demonstrate its trademark rights and to enforce these rights through an infringement action. Unauthorized use of a registered trademark need not be intentional in order for infringement to occur, although damages in an infringement lawsuit will generally be greater if there was an intention to deceive.
For trademarks which are considered to be well known, infringing use may occur where the use occurs in relation to products or services which are not the same as or similar to the products or services in relation to which the owner's mark is registered.
Limits and defenses to trademarkEdit
Trademark is subject to various defenses and limitations. In the United States, the fair use defense protects uses that would be otherwise protected by the First Amendment. Fair use may be asserted on two grounds, either that the alleged infringer is using the mark to accurately describe an aspect of its products, or that the alleged infringer is using the mark to identify the mark owner.
An example of the first type is that although Maytag owns the trademark "Whisper Quiet", makers of other products may describe their goods as being "whisper quiet" so long as these competitors are not using the phrase as a trademark.
An example of the second type is that Audi can run advertisements saying that a trade publication has rated an Audi model higher than a BMW model, since they are only using "BMW" to identify the competitor. Similarly, a designer impostor perfume may advertise that its product is similar to Chanel No. 5. In a related sense, an auto mechanic can truthfully advertise that he services Cadillacs, and a former Playboy Playmate of the Year can identify herself as such on her website.
Wrongful or groundless threats of infringementEdit
Various jurisdictions have laws which are designed to prevent trademark owners from making wrongful threats of trademark infringement action against other parties. These laws are intended to prevent large or powerful companies from intimidating or harassing smaller companies.
Where one party makes a threat to sue another for trademark infringement, but does not have a genuine basis or intention to carry out that threat, or does not carry out the threat at all within a certain period, the threat may itself become a basis for legal action. In this situation, the party receiving such a threat may seek from the Court, a declaratory judgment; also known as a declaratory ruling.
Trademark law is designed to fulfill the public policy objective of consumer protection, by preventing the public from being misled as to the origin or quality of a product or service. By identifying the commercial source of products and services, trademarks facilitate identification of products and services which meet the expectations of consumers as to quality and other characteristics.
Trademarks may also serve as an incentive for manufacturers, providers or suppliers to consistently provide quality products or services in order to maintain their business reputation. Furthermore, if a trademark owner does not maintain quality control and adequate supervision in relation to the manufacture and provision of products or services supplied by a licensee, such "naked licensing" will eventually adversely impact on the owner's rights in the trademark. This proposition has, however, been watered down by the judgment of the House of Lords in the case of Scandecor Development AB v. Scandecor Marketing AB et al  UKHL 21; wherein it has been held that the mere fact that a bare license (equivalent of the United States concept of a naked license) has been granted did not automatically mean that a trademark was liable to mislead.
By the same token, trademark holders must be cautious in the sale of their mark for similar reasons as apply to licensing. When assigning an interest in a trademark, if the associated product or service is not transferred with it, then this may be an "assignment-in-gross" and could lead to a loss of rights in the trademark. It is still possible to make significant changes to the underlying goods or services during a sale without jeopardizing the trademark, but companies will often contract with the sellers to help transition the mark and goods and/or services to the new owners to ensure continuity of the trademark.
Comparison with patents, designs and copyrightEdit
While trademark law seeks to protect indications of the commercial source of products or services, patent law generally seeks to protect new and useful inventions, and registered designs law generally seeks to protect the look or appearance of a manufactured article. Trademarks, patents and designs collectively form a subset of intellectual property known as industrial property because they are often created and used in an industrial or commercial context.
By comparison, copyright law generally seeks to protect original literary, artistic and other creative works. A trademark also does not expire (if it is re-registered), whereas international copyright law (which varies from country to country) usually lasts the duration of the author's lifespan plus 70 years. This can lead to confusion in cases where a work passes into the public domain but the character in question remains a registered trademark.
Although intellectual property laws such as these are theoretically distinct, more than one type may afford protection to the same article. For example, the particular design of a bottle may qualify for copyright protection as a non-utilitarian [sculpture], or for trademark protection based on its shape, or the 'trade dress' appearance of the bottle as a whole may be protectable. Titles and character names from books or movies may also be protectable as trademarks while the works from which they are drawn may qualify for copyright protection as a whole.
Drawing these distinctions is necessary but often challenging for the courts and lawyers, especially in jurisdictions where patents and copyrights when they pass into the public domain depending on the jurisdiction. Unlike patents and copyrights, which in theory are granted for one-off fixed terms, trademarks remain valid as long as the owner actively uses and defends them and maintains their registrations with the applicable jurisdiction's trademarks office. This often involves payment of a periodic renewal fee.
As a trademark must be used in order to maintain rights in relation to that mark, a trademark can be 'abandoned' or its registration can be canceled or revoked if the mark is not continuously used. By comparison, patents and copyrights cannot be 'abandoned' and a patent holder or copyright owner can generally enforce their rights without taking any particular action to maintain the patent or copyright. Additionally, patent holders and copyright owners may not necessarily need to actively police their rights. However, a failure to bring a timely infringement suit or action against a known infringer may give the defendant a defense of implied consent or estoppel when suit is finally brought.
A trademark is diluted when the use of similar or identical trademarks in other non-competing markets means that the trademark in and of itself will lose its capacity to signify a single source. In other words, unlike ordinary trademark law, dilution protection extends to trademark uses that do not confuse consumers regarding who has made a product. Instead, dilution protection law aims to protect sufficiently strong trademarks from losing their singular association in the public mind with a particular product, perhaps imagined if the trademark were to be encountered independently of any product (e.g., just the word Pepsi spoken, or on a billboard). Under trademark law, dilution occurs either when unauthorized use of a mark "blurs" the "distinctive nature of the mark" or "tarnishes it." Likelihood of confusion is not required. 15 U.S.C §§ 1127, 1125(c).
Sale, transfer and licensing of trademarksEdit
In various jurisdictions a trademark may be sold with or without the underlying goodwill which subsists in the business associated with the mark. However, this is not the case in the United States, where the courts have held that this would "be a fraud upon the public". In the U.S., trademark registration can therefore only be sold and assigned if accompanied by the sale of an underlying asset. Examples of assets whose sale would ordinarily support the assignment of a mark include the sale of the machinery used to produce the goods that bear the mark, or the sale of the corporation (or subsidiary) that produces the trademarked goods.
Most jurisdictions provide for the use of trademarks to be licensed to third parties. The licensor (usually the trademark owner) must monitor the quality of the goods being produced by the licensee to avoid the risk of trademark being deemed abandoned by the courts. A trademark license should therefore include appropriate provisions dealing with quality control, whereby the licensee provides warranties as to quality and the licensor has rights to inspection and monitoring.
Trademarks and domain namesEdit
The advent of the domain name system has led to attempts by trademark holders to enforce their rights over domain names that are similar or identical to their existing trademarks, particularly by seeking control over the domain names at issue. As with dilution protection, enforcing trademark rights over domain name owners involves protecting a trademark outside the obvious context of its consumer market, because domain names are global and not limited by goods or service.
This conflict was more easily resolved when the domain name user actually used his website to compete with the trademark owner. Cybersquatting, however, involves no such competition, but instead an unlicensed user registering the trademark as a domain name in order to pressure a payoff (or other benefit) from the lawful mark owner. Typosquatters—those registering common misspellings of trademarks as domain names—have also been targeted successfully in trademark infringement suits. Other types of domain name disputes include the so-called "gripe site," which use a registered trademark in a domain such as "[trademark]sucks.com." There are also disputes arising from the subdomain, when a third party uses a protected mark in a web address such as "[trademark].[legitimatedomain].com." 
This clash of the new technology with preexisting trademark rights resulted in several high profile decisions as the courts of many countries tried to coherently address the issue (and not always successfully) within the framework of existing trademark law. As the website itself was not the product being purchased, there was no actual consumer confusion, and so initial interest confusion was a concept applied instead. Initial interest confusion refers to customer confusion that creates an initial interest in a competitor's "product" (in the online context, another party's website). Even though initial interest confusion is dispelled by the time any actual sales occur, it allows a trademark infringer to capitalize on the goodwill associated with the original mark.
Several cases have wrestled with the concept of initial interest confusion. In Playboy v. Netscape, the court found initial interest confusion when users typed in Playboy's trademarks into a search engine, resulting in the display of search results alongside unlabeled banner ads, triggered by keywords that included Playboy's marks, that would take users to Playboy's competitors. Though users might ultimately realize upon clicking on the banner ads that they were not Playboy-affiliated, the court found that the competitor advertisers could have gained customers by appropriating Playboy's goodwill since users may be perfectly happy to browse the competitor's site instead of returning the search results to find the Playboy sites.
In Lamparello v. Falwell, however, the court clarified that a finding of initial interest confusion is contingent on financial profit from said confusion, such that, if a domain name confusing similar to a registered trademark is used for a non-trademark related website, the site owner will not be found to have infringed where he does not seek to capitalize on the mark's goodwill for his own commercial enterprises.
In addition, courts have upheld the rights of trademark owners with regard to commercial use of domain names, even in cases where goods sold there legitimately bear the mark. In the landmark decision Creative Gifts, Inc. v. UFO, 235 F.3d 540 (10th Cir. 2000)(New Mexico), Defendants had registered the domain name "Levitron.com" to sell goods bearing the trademark "Levitron" under an at-will license from the trademark owner. The 10th Circuit affirmed the rights of the trademark owner with regard to said domain name, despite arguments of promissory estoppel.
Most courts particularly frowned on cybersquatting, and found that it was itself a sufficiently commercial use (i.e., "trafficking" in trademarks) to reach into the area of trademark infringement. Most jurisdictions have since amended their trademark laws to address domain names specifically, and to provide explicit remedies against cybersquatters.
This international legal change has also led to the creation of ICANN Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP) and other dispute policies for specific countries (such as Nominet UK's DRS) which attempt to streamline the process of resolving who should own a domain name (without dealing with other infringement issues such as damages). This is particularly desirable to trademark owners when the domain name registrant may be in another country or even anonymous.
Registrants of domain names also sometimes wish to register the domain names themselves (e.g., "XYZ.COM") as trademarks for perceived advantages, such as an extra bulwark against their domain being hijacked, and to avail themselves of such remedies as confusion or passing off against other domain holders with confusingly similar or intentionally misspelled domain names.
As with other trademarks, the domain name will not be subject to registration unless the proposed mark is actually used to identify the registrant's goods or services to the public, rather than simply being the location on the Internet where the applicant's web site appears. Amazon.com is a prime example of a protected trademark for a domain name central to the public's identification of the company and its products.
Terms which are not protectable by themselves, such as a generic term or a merely descriptive term that has not acquired secondary meaning, may become registrable when a Top-Level Domain Name (e.g. dot-COM) is appended to it. An example of such a domain name ineligible for trademark or service mark protection as a generic term, but which currently has a registered U.S. service mark, is "HEARSAY.COM" USPTO Search.
International trademark lawsEdit
It is important to note that although there are systems which facilitate the filing, registration or enforcement of trademark rights in more than one jurisdiction on a regional or global basis (e.g. the Madrid and CTM systems, see further below), it is currently not possible to file and obtain a single trademark registration which will automatically apply around the world. Like any national law, trademark laws apply only in their applicable country or jurisdiction, a quality which is sometimes known as "territoriality".
Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property RightsEdit
The inherent limitations of the territorial application of trademark laws have been mitigated by various intellectual property treaties, foremost amongst which is the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. TRIPS establishes legal compatibility between member jurisdictions by requiring the harmonization of applicable laws. For example, Article 15(1) of TRIPS provides a definition for "sign" which is used as or forms part of the definition of "trademark" in the trademark legislation of many jurisdictions around the world.
The Madrid system for the international registration of marksEdit
The major international system for facilitating the registration of trademarks in multiple jurisdictions is commonly known as the "Madrid system". Madrid provides a centrally administered system for securing trademark registrations in member jurisdictions by extending the protection of an "international registration" obtained through the World Intellectual Property Organization. This international registration is in turn based upon an application or registration obtained by a trade mark applicant in its home jurisdiction.
The primary advantage of the Madrid system is that it allows a trademark owner to obtain trademark protection in many jurisdictions by filing one application in one jurisdiction with one set of fees, and make any changes (e.g. changes of name or address) and renew registration across all applicable jurisdictions through a single administrative process. Furthermore, the "coverage" of the international registration may be extended to additional member jurisdictions at any time.
Trademark Law TreatyEdit
The Trademark Law Treaty establishes a system pursuant to which member jurisdictions agree to standardize procedural aspects of the trademark registration process.
Community Trade Mark systemEdit
The Community Trade Mark system is the supranational trademark system which applies in the European Union, whereby registration of a trademark with the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (i.e. OHIM, the trademarks office of the European Union), leads to a registration which is effective throughout the EU as a whole. The CTM system is therefore said to be unitary in character, in that a CTM registration applies indivisibly across all European Union member states. However, the CTM system did not replace the national trademark registration systems; the CTM system and the national systems continue to operate in parallel to each other (see also European Union trade mark law).
Trademark characteristics and "-esque"Edit
Sometimes a characteristic of a creation like an artwork, a design, or a body of artwork is so distinctive that it becomes identified with its creator and is thus considered to be that creator's trademark (whether it meets the legal criteria for a trademark or not).
Occasionally when such a trademark or something similar to it is visible in a work (especially an artwork) by someone other its owner, it is identified by appending the trademark owner's name with the suffix "esque", e.g. "Rubenesque Woman Has Picassoesque Face". The distinction between the "-esque" characteristic and trademark on an artist's name is subtle and has been litigated.
Trademark law in different countriesEdit
- Australian trade mark law
- Canadian trade-mark law
- European Union trade mark law
- Hong Kong trade mark law
- People's Republic of China's trademark law
- United Kingdom trade mark law
- United States trademark law
- Certification marks
- Chartered marks
- Collective trademarks
- Defensive trademarks
- Electronic registration marks
- Geographical indication
- Protected designation of origin
Non-conventional / non-traditional trademarksEdit
- Colour trademarks
- Hologram trademarks
- Shape trademarks
- Smell trademarks
- Sound trademarks
- List of fictional brands
- Genericized trademarks
- Ghost marks
- Glossary of legal terms in technology
- Madrid system
- Proper adjective
- Trademark attorney
- INTA The International Trademark Association
- WIPO World Intellectual Property Organisation
- OHIM Office of the European Union
- Directory of trade names in Webster's Online Dictionary (Rosetta Edition)
- Trademark FAQs by the International Trademark Association
- USPTO Stopfakes.gov anti-piracy and IP resources for small business
- Law on marks and signs Switzerland (German | English)