If you’ve ever started your own business, you know how much time and creative energy you spend on picking just the right name. But how do you protect a business name and make sure no one else grabs it for their own use?
Anyone can snatch up a business name and use it for their own business. There’s no one uniform database or agency that ensures only one business is using a specific business name. That’s how we often see very similar company names that aren’t related by franchise or corporate ownership from one state to another.
Yet it’s important to safeguard all of your company’s intellectual property, and that includes its name. Otherwise, chaos and consumer confusion can ensue. That’s especially true in the digital age, as most companies have their own websites. You want to make sure your customers and prospects are landing on your website, not some unrelated company’s domain.
Even more importantly, a company taking your name can also damage your reputation by not performing to your high standards, especially if you’re both in the same field or industry. The risk of damage to your brand could be significant.
If you’ve ever wondered “How do I protect my business name from being used by someone else?” take heart. Federal, state and local laws may all offer tools you can use to protect your company name and preserve your rights as the business owner. Read on to learn how to protect your business name.
File a DBA or Register a Business Name
One of the most effective ways to protect your company name within your state is to complete the formal process of creating a corporate entity under your state’s laws. Typically this means filing articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State or other designated state agency.
Forming a corporate entity for your business isn’t necessary to transact business in a state, however. Sole proprietorships, partnerships and other non-corporate entities can also conduct operations as a business. If you choose to go this route, however, applicable state or local laws might require you to register a fictitious name for your business.
Let’s say Jane Smith forms a business and wants to brand and sell her products as Fresh Face Skincare. She can create a corporation titled Fresh Face Skincare, Inc., or she could simply file a “doing business as” (or DBA) registration as Fresh Face Skincare. Some jurisdictions mandate DBA registration, while in others that’s optional. In either case, registering your DBA name will help protect it from being used by others.
Trademark a Business Name
Wondering how to protect your company name on a national level? Registering your trademark can help you safeguard your brand and business name. Trademark covers a combination of words, letters and graphic elements (designs and symbols that make up a logo, for example).
Trademarks both identify your company as the source of specific goods and provide some legal protection for your branding elements against misuse by others. It doesn’t mean that you alone have the right to use a specific word or phrase that’s included in your trademark. Others can also use that trademark element, whether it’s a logo or text, as long as it’s not used in the same context. For example, you have a right to your trademarked name for selling your office furniture. If another business uses the same trademark for selling running shoes, that’s not a violation of your trademark rights.
To establish your trademark and protect your business name, you simply need to start using it to market or brand your goods. There is no additional requirement that you register it. However, a registered trademark enjoys broader protection, including national rights (as opposed to local protection only). The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office manages trademark registration and applications.
Copyright a Business Name
Frequently, new business owners seek to obtain copyright protection for their brand name. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright protection is not available for names, titles, taglines, website domains and the like.
You may be able to successfully seek coverage for original artwork that reflects your brand and possibly your business name. You don’t have to publish your logo to obtain protection under U.S. copyright laws, but that’s a good way to demonstrate usage and ownership, which might be helpful if your right to the logo artwork is ever challenged by someone else.
To register your copyright in brand logo artwork, you’ll need to fill out and submit an application form together with a copy of the artwork. You can also register your copyright online. The necessary forms and instructions, together with a schedule of the fees that accompany copyright protection, can be located at the U.S. Copyright Office website.
Register Your Domain Name
While securing a branded domain name won’t itself prevent anyone from using your company name, it will help reinforce your use of that brand and prove that you’ve been using it longer. It’s also important from a marketing and branding perspective to stake your claim at the best possible digital address for your business.
If you discover that your preferred matching domain name isn’t available for you to use, you’ve got a few options to consider. First, consider adding location information to the domain. For example, if BusinessName.com is already in use, try BusinessNameCity.com, or CityBusinessName.com. Alternatively, you can get creative with spellings or adapt the business name into initials.
While you can change your domain in the future, it’s often expensive and complex to do so. The better option is to get creative and find a domain name you can live with that’s related to your business name.
Whatever option you choose, register the domain as soon as possible, even if you won’t be building your website immediately. This will help protect the name from additional use by unrelated companies. Select the automatic renewal option for your domains’ registration so you won’t accidentally lose the right to use them.
A version of this article was originally published on June 25, 2019.
Photo: Getty Images