There’s no one uniform database or agency that ensures only one business is using a specific business name. That’s why 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 potentially damage your reputation by not performing to your high standards, especially if you’re in the same field or industry. The risk of damage to your brand could be significant.
While securing a branded domain name won’t itself prevent anyone from using your company name, it can help reinforce your use of that brand and, if needed, help prove you’ve been using it longer.
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.
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. Typically this means filing articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State or other designated state agency.
However, forming a corporate entity for your business isn’t necessary to transact business in a state. Sole proprietorships, partnerships, and other non-corporate entities can also operate as a business. But if you choose this route 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” (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
Registering your trademark can help safeguard your brand name on a national level. Trademark covers a combination of words, letters, and graphic elements like designs and symbols on a logo.
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 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
New business owners often seek 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.
However, 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.
To register your copyright for brand logo artwork, you’ll need to fill out and submit an application with a copy of the artwork. You can register your copyright online.
Register Your Domain Name
While securing a branded domain name won’t itself prevent anyone from using your company name, it can help reinforce your use of that brand and, if needed, help prove 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.
Solidifying and securing your brand name is among the key steps in starting a business and building a brand for lasting success.
A version of this article was originally published on June 25, 2019.
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