Choosing a Trademark

by Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP

Two-Fold Purpose of Trademarks

Customers know a business and its goods and services by its trademarks. Trademarks are source identifiers that indicate the origin of goods or services in the marketplace and distinguish them from the goods or services of others. Trademarks also represent the goodwill that a business has built up through its history of offering quality goods or services. To qualify as a trademark (for goods) or a service mark (for services), the chosen word(s) or symbol must be sufficiently distinctive to serve these two functions.

Corporate, Company or “Doing Business As” (dba) Names

A corporate, company or dba name is not necessarily a trademark. Mere incorporation, formation of a company or partnership, or registration of a business name does not provide a business with trademark rights in the name, nor does listing a name on a state’s corporate, dba or company name registry. To establish trademark rights in a name, a business must use the name as a trademark, that is, use the name in an adjectival manner followed by the generic term for the particular goods or services (e.g., Beaulieu® carpets or Protective Life® insurance services) to market and sell those goods or services in commerce. The name, like any trademark, must be sufficiently distinctive to identify and distinguish the business as the source of the associated goods or services and embody the goodwill earned by the business. To ensure exclusive trademark rights in a business name, a business should secure state or federal trademark registration.

Trademarks and Domain Names

A domain name is an address on the internet, much like a street address is a geographic locator of a bricks-and-mortar business. Businesses often register their names or trademarks as domains. However, merely registering a word or words as a domain does not, by itself, create trademark rights. A domain name may become a trademark if it is used as a trademark, that is, to identify and distinguish the source of goods or services.
Types of Trademarks

Trademarks and service marks (collectively referred to simply as “trademarks”) may be divided into five primary categories: word marks, design marks, initials or numbers, slogans, and trade dress or product configuration. Although beyond the scope of this article, sounds, colors, flavors, and scents may also function as trademarks and are protectable as trademarks under U.S. law.

Word Marks

A word mark is the most common form of trademark. It consists only of a word or a sequence of words, without design or stylization. As might be expected, some word marks make for stronger trademarks than others. In fact, words marks are typically analyzed, by the courts and by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), as falling into one of five categories of marks: (1) fanciful or coined; (2) arbitrary; (3) suggestive; (4) descriptive; and (5) generic.

  • Fanciful – A fanciful word mark is essentially a coined or made-up word or group of words. It has no independent meaning other than to identify a particular good or service. (Tip: Be careful that a fanciful mark does not carry an unintended meaning or inference in a foreign language.) From a legal standpoint, a fanciful mark is the strongest type of word mark that a business can choose. A fanciful mark is typically registrable on the USPTO’s Principal Register (provided it is not confusingly similar to another party’s prior registered mark), and courts accord it very broad protection. Examples of coined words include SAMSUNG, VERIZON and HÄAGEN DAZS.
  • Arbitrary – An arbitrary word mark is a word or sequence of words with a definite dictionary meaning that is used to identify goods or services that have no natural connection to that meaning. APPLE, for computer products, and COACH, for leather goods, are examples of arbitrary marks. Like a fanciful mark, an arbitrary mark is considered by the courts and the USPTO to be quite strong and entitled to broad protection. It is also typically registrable with the USPTO.
  • Suggestive – As the name implies, a suggestive word mark is a word or sequence of words that is used in an original way to suggest a feature of the associated goods or services. If some measure of incongruity exists between a mark and the goods and/or services it identifies – that is, if the mark requires a mental pause or leap of imagination to grasp its import – then the mark is generally considered to be at least suggestive. Suggestive marks are not considered to be as strong as fanciful or arbitrary marks, but courts and the USPTO still accord the marks fairly substantial protection. Examples of suggestive word marks include FACEBOOK for a social media network, 7-ELEVEN for late-night convenience stores, and SNUGGLE for fabric softener.
  • Descriptive – A descriptive word mark immediately identifies a significant feature or characteristics of its associated goods or services. Until a descriptive mark acquires “secondary meaning” or recognition in the marketplace through use, it is considered to lack distinctiveness, and the courts and the USPTO therefore accord it very narrow protection. For example, HOLIDAY INN, before it acquired secondary meaning, referred simply to a lodging where travelers might stay when on vacation. This is its primary meaning. Its secondary meaning is as an identifier of the particular chain of hotels associated with the HOLIDAY INN mark. Until a descriptive mark acquires secondary meaning, it is not registrable on the USPTO Principal Register. However, a descriptive mark may be presumed to have acquired secondary meaning, and therefore distinctiveness, once it has been used continuously for five years. Additionally, during the initial five years, an owner of a descriptive mark may register the mark on the USPTO Supplemental Register to notify other businesses that the owner has claimed the descriptive mark as its trademark and to prevent registration of confusingly similar marks. KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN for restaurant services is another example of a descriptive mark that has acquired secondary meaning through substantial use in the marketplace. In addition, marks that are primarily surnames, such as MCDONALD’S, are generally categorized as descriptive marks. As one can see from the trademark use of the surname MCDONALD’S, even descriptive marks can be accorded very broad protection once they have acquired significant secondary meaning.
  • Generic – A generic term defines the goods or services with which it is associated. Such words can never function as trademarks and are accorded no protection by the courts or the USPTO. Were generic marks accorded protection, competing business owners would be deprived of the ability to describe their goods or services without risk of liability. Examples of generic terms include APPLE for apples or AUTOMOBILE for cars. Note that a protectable mark, even a fanciful mark, can run the risk of becoming generic over time; consider KLEENEX for tissue, XEROX for photocopiers or GOOGLE for internet search engines. Proper trademark use – e.g., KLEENEX-brand tissues – can help protect against the risk of so-called genericide.

Design Marks

A design mark consists of a pictorial or geometric representation that is used to identify goods or services. It can also be combined with words or phrases. Normally, design marks are considered to be inherently distinctive and are federally registrable (provided they are not considered confusingly similar to a previously registered mark). Examples of design marks include the picture of the bird used by Twitter to suggest its users’ tweets, the “swoosh” used by Nike to identify its shoes and apparel, or the Peacock design associated with National Broadcasting Corp. to suggest broadcasting in color. Design marks can be considered descriptive, though, or in some cases even generic, in the same way that word marks are categorized. Moreover, there are certain designs that, by statute, are not registrable, such as the official insignia of the United States or of other countries, states or municipalities.

Initials or Numbers

Initials and numbers may be registered as trademarks in the same way that word marks are registrable. Generally, initials and numbers lack any intrinsic meaning and are therefore less likely to be considered descriptive or generic for their associated goods or services. However, businesses should steer clear of initials and number marks that identify a government agency (such as the FBI) or a government grading system (such as the Department of Agriculture’s “Grade A” rating). Moreover, the initials and numbers must function as trademarks, and not merely as style or grade designations. Examples of protectable initial- or number-based marks include AT&T for communication services and LEVI’S 501 for denim.


Sentences and phrases that are used as slogans or tag lines may also function as trademarks. But because sentences and phrases tend to convey more precise meanings than simple words, they are sometimes considered to be descriptive. As a result, slogans are often more difficult to register than simple word marks. Examples of registrable slogans include Nike’s JUST DO IT and McDonald’s’ I’M LOVIN’ IT.

Trade Dress/Product Configurations

Trade dress is the “look and feel” or “total image” of a good or service, and it can serve as a source identifier in the same way that more traditional word marks do. Examples include a particularly distinctive interior design for a retail store (Apple), or the color of a shoe sole (Charles Louboutin). The design of a product or a container shape may also be protectable as a trademark, provided the public perceives the shape or design as identifying and distinguishing the source of the goods. Examples include a distinctive bottle shape such as the Coca-Cola bottle, or a dripping-wax seal, such as used by Maker’s Mark. To be protectable, trade dress must be nonfunctional (i.e., it must not be essential to the use or purpose of the article or affect the cost or quality of the article) and distinctive. In the case of product design trade dress, distinctiveness must always be shown through proof of secondary meaning or acquisition of recognition in the marketplace.

Availability of Trademarks

In addition to the characteristics of the mark itself, a second important factor in choosing a trademark is its availability for use. In the United States, rights to a trademark may be acquired simply through use; state or federal registration is not a prerequisite. These common law rights entitle a business that first uses a mark to prevent others from adopting similar marks in the same geographic area or in areas of natural expansion. A business that obtains a federal registration for its mark has exclusive rights to the mark throughout the entire U.S. as of the date of registration for any goods or services that are the same or similar to those identified on the registration. If a mark has previously been registered, or is currently being used by another business, for goods or services that are similar to those offered by the potential applicant, the mark is probably not available for use or federal registration. Indeed, a business that uses a mark in the face of a previously existing similar use or federal registration may be liable for trademark infringement.

Even if none of the previously existing registrations or uses is associated with goods or services similar to those a business might offer, the business may still be advised to choose another mark, especially if the original proposed mark has been used widely throughout the U.S. As the number of similar marks increases, the scope of protection accorded any of those marks by the courts and the USPTO narrows. For especially common marks, it is likely that each business using the mark will be accorded only very narrow protection limited to the exact goods and/or services with which it has used the mark. Moreover, under the Federal Anti-Dilution Act, the senior user of a mark considered to be “famous” (think: TIFFANY’S or WESTERN UNION) may prevent a junior user from using its mark, even for goods or services unrelated to those for which the mark acquired its fame.

Finally, in choosing a mark, a business should also consider the availability or prior use of domain names comprising the mark or something similar. While domain name registration and use do not necessarily establish trademark rights in a given mark for the registrant, the unavailability of a domain name for use in marketing and offering a business’s intended goods and/or services may make investment in a particular mark a losing proposition.


The process of choosing an appropriate trademark is complicated and takes time. To avoid legal pitfalls, a business should work with trademark legal counsel to ensure that the mark or name the business selects is available and federally registrable. To determine the availability of a given trademark or service mark, a search of USPTO and state records and of certain common law databases should be conducted, in addition to general internet research. Since U.S. accession to the Madrid Protocol, it may make sense to search international registrations and applications filed in the European Community as well. Legal counsel can review search reports and provide an opinion on the availability and registrability of a proposed mark. Legal counsel can also advise regarding the timing of filing a trademark application to ensure that rights are protected from the earliest date possible.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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