Trade marks for startups: Should you DIY?

John Dean from IP Asset on the dos and don'ts of trade marking your brand
17th May 2017

John Dean, of IP Asset’s Bath office, who has a background of 30 year’s intellectual property experience, recently talked about trade marks to an entrepreneur and start up audience at the University of Bath Innovation Centre. He has kindly provided the main points of what he talked about for us below. This includes what entrepreneurs and small companies can do for themselves to maximise the value in their trade mark assets without incurring unnecessary expense – but he also asks is DIY good for you? 

What’s a trade mark? The value of registration

Most new companies will have a trade mark – which can be a word, logo or composite mark with a mixture of elements, or other sign which identifies its product or service offering to customers.

Trade marks are valuable assets of any business. Whilst rights arise under common law in the UK simply through use, the law encourages registration of trade marks, and the first company to file will usually end up with dominant rights. In practice, registered trade marks “trump” other rights like domain names and company names, so it’s worth getting registrations of key trade marks in place.

The registration of trade marks is one of the services that trade mark attorneys offer and can get the best protection for a start up. Costs vary according to the goods and/or services to be covered and where the application is filed. Just ask for an estimate.

A trade mark registration can be kept in force indefinitely through payment of renewal fees. UK trade mark registration no. 1 from 1876 – for the Bass beer red triangle label is still in force!

Choosing a trade mark

It’s worth spending the time and effort in choosing a good trade mark at the beginning. Developing good branding is a skilled job in its own right but registrability of trade marks often gives good pointers. Avoid descriptive terms, like “The Better App Company”, or “The Good Antenna Company” as they are not distinctive, and therefore difficult to register.

A classic branding strategy is to use a two syllable invented word, as such trade marks are inherently distinctive, and so should be straightforward to register. Examples include Nikon®, Sony® and Kodak®. Another strategy is to use a word which has nothing to do with the product/services. Examples include Lemonade™ for insurance; or Juice™ for recruitment services.

Searching/Clearing

It goes without saying that a start up should avoid using other companies’ trade marks, although use of the same trade mark in a completely different field may not be objectionable as trade marks are registered for different classes of good and services. Looking at other companies’ registered trade marks in UK and elsewhere to eliminate candidate trade marks at a high level is pretty straightforward.

The UK register is at: https://www.ipo.gov.uk/tmtext.htm. For other markets look at https://www.tmdn.org/tmview/welcome. As rights in trade marks can be acquired simply through use, look at what trade marks are in use in the market place –  through Google® and domain name searches. However, bear in mind that clearing trade marks for use, where judgement is needed in analysing complicated trade mark search reports, is a skilled job, and one which it is best to use a trade mark attorney for.

There’s lots that start ups can do to maximise the value of their trade marks, and minimise future problems, simply through good practice. They should always use their trade marks carefully in marketing in relation to the goods and not generically. Take care when using other companies’ trade marks. Identify registered trade marks as I have done above with the recognised symbol ® e.g.  DAKTARI®.  If a start up has a sign which it regards as a trade mark, then it should identify that sign with the recognised symbol – ™ – to warn off third parties e.g. MUGWUMP™