If you're running a business, you likely already realize the importance of choosing and registering a unique name. Not only does your chosen name need to be memorable to your customer base, but it also should be available online. If your business name is already in use, customers will be confused and, even worse, you may find yourself on the receiving end of legal action.
But once your company is fully operational, there's no guarantee some other business won't use the same name. Not everyone will go to the same measures you did to verify that a name is unique before claiming it. These tips can help prevent your name from being stolen, as well as what to do if damage has been done.
Protect Your Name
Although your business name doesn't have to be trademarked to have protection, it can make a big difference. Even though everyone won't conduct a trademark and patent search, those who do will see that the name is taken and move on. If someone uses your name, simply showing proof that you've trademarked the name could be enough to convince a business to choose something else. Most importantly, if you must go to court, you'll have legal proof that you registered the name.
However, you don't have to trademark your business name to protect it. Before you start accepting customers, you'll be required to register your business with your local government, which will create a paper trail demonstrating that you owned the name as of a certain date. Even if a business in another state or country is using your name, that documentation will help you as you try to establish exclusivity.
In addition to legal protections, you should also create as broad an online presence as possible. This includes profiles on at least one or two social media platforms, as well as Google My Business, Yelp, and, of course, your own website. Few businesses will want to use a name if someone else will rank higher for that name in search results, even if they are located on the other side of the world.
Assess the Damage
Despite your best efforts, you may wake up one day to find your business name is in use by another company. The first step is to assess the damage. Is the company a direct competitor? AAA Pest Control and AAA Plumbing can easily exist in the same town, on the same street, without causing much confusion for customers. If the company is in the same industry but operates only locally, it still may not be an issue for businesses that aren't in that city, unless they're somehow intercepting customers online. Even if you've trademarked your business, you may not have an infringement case if the other business's use of your name isn't harming your business in some way.
What if the business using your name is in another country? Another company's use of your name will likely only become a problem if you're doing business in that area of the world. Some businesses fail to trademark their business names in other countries and by the time they realize they're expanding, it's too late. If you've been doing business in another area and someone else began using your name after the fact, you'll still need to establish that they are, indeed, harming your ability to do business by sharing your name.
Once you've established that the duplicate use of your business name is bringing harm to your business, gather documentation. Pull your trademark papers or your business license registration, as well as any other paperwork that demonstrates the date you established your business under that name. Also keep any documentation that shows the harm your company is suffering as a result of this.
The earlier you can catch the duplicate name, the better. If the business is still in the early stages, a simple email or phone call alerting them to the slip-up could be sufficient. Chances are, the other business doesn't want to compete with a company that is already established. However, if you can, your best next step likely will be to consult an attorney who specializes in trademark law, even if your name isn't officially trademarked. A legal professional may be able to simply send a “cease and desist letter" and resolve the issue.
In many cases, a business with a duplicate name won't cause problems with your own customer base. However, when a similarly-named company confuses customers and threatens to harm your hard-earned reputation, it's important to take action as quickly as possible to avoid permanent damage.
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