Seller Handbook

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Seller Handbook

How to Research Trademarks

Researching trademarks online is easy. Learn how.

By Sarah Feingold Apr 1, 2008
Roger J. Porter
Photo by Roger J. Porter

The next time you’re eating a candy bar, a bag of chips, or even breakfast cereal, take a closer look at the packaging.  You may see various symbols following the brand name or the logo. What do these symbols mean?

Some of these symbols may have to do with trademarks. The symbol TM (for trademark) and SM (for servicemark) may indicate that someone is claiming the identifier as a mark but it has no legal significance. The ® symbol is an international symbol to show that the mark is registered at the national level (in the U.S., that’s on a federal registrar). However, a mark may be protected even if it is not registered at the national level.

A trademark is a word, phrase, design, or other feature that primarily serves to identify the source of a product or service. These symbols may indicate that someone is claiming a mark as a way to identify the source of a product. If a mark is descriptive and weak, using the TM symbol will not improve its status.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website has a free database of all marks that have been applied for, including those that were refused. Navigating this site can be confusing! So try the following steps:

1) Go to www.uspto.gov. Click on the “Trademarks” link on the navigation. Then select “Trademark Search."

2) Choose “Basic Word Mark Search (New User)”

3) Type in your inquiry in the “Search Term” field and click “Submit Query.”  You can also narrow the search by using the advanced features.  Once you have viewed the results of your search, click on your Internet browser’s “back” button to search again.  Remember, this database only contains marks with current or expired federal United States trademark registrations.  It does not contain registrations from other countries or US states (state registers only record marks used within that state).

Remember, if you search the USPTO website and find no matches, the mark might still be protected.  This is because the United States has no centralized national register: a mark might be registered in another country, a mark may be registered on the state level, and a mark may be protected even if the mark is not registered anywhere.

So put down your snack (just for a second) and take a closer look at the symbols on the packaging.  And remember, some business names, product names, or brand names are also registered trademarks.  If you wonder whether a word or phrase is a registered trademark in the U.S., try doing a trademark search on the USPTO. It's a good place to start in your research!

You can ask general questions below or suggest article topics in the comments. But don't ask any personal business questions (best to keep that stuff private, y'all!).

Author

Sarah Feingold

Sarah Feingold is Etsy's in-house attorney. She is also a jeweler with an extreme sweet tooth.

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