Too often I’ve seen founders lost for words when asked by potential investors on ‘whether that trademark is still available?’. Whether you’re a startup or a corporate venture, you will need to have your brand-related intellectual property sorted out. For many teams their intellectual property is their most important asset and branding properties are no different. Too many teams make mistakes in this or don’t give it the thought required. Doing your research and spending a bit of money saves you major headaches later on. This does not only help you protect your brand it will also help you find out whether you’re infringing on someone else’s brand. Follow these 5 easy steps to make sure you have the basics covered.
- Name your startup. Naming your startup is a science and art on its own and a topic of a future blog post (for now try a google search). For the sake of this article, I presume you’ve come up with a name within your team, tried it with a few close friends you can trust, and move on to the next step.
- Check available domain names. A simple, fast, and easy way to find out if your name is still available, is to search for its domain name. If the domain name is still available, chances are you can start using that name as your brand. Good places to start are NameCheap or Name.com as they allow you to search numerous extensions at the same time.
- Check trademark availability in relevant markets. Having a domain name available does not mean that the trademark is also available and that you can freely use that name. For this, you need to do some research. Trademark registrations are organized on a geographic basis, so you need to search your country’s register. All the European registers are combined in this search form for Europe, use this form for the US. Important to know is that a trademark is registered for a certain ‘class’ of goods or services. If someone registered your name as a trademark for pet food, chances are you can still use it for your online platform (probably as long as it is not a pet food platform). Not only search for exactly the name you have in mind, but also search for similar (sounding) names. You notice that things are already becoming a bit more tricky at this step so if you have any doubts or you want more certainty on availability, consult a specialized trademark lawyer, who can conduct an availability search for you as well.
- Register your domain names. Before you use your potential name in public or start discussing it with people that you’re not 100% sure you can fully trust, register your domain name. Registering a domain name takes a few minutes and costs less than a cheap meal so there is no excuse not to register your name for the most important and relevant extensions (such as .com, .net, .co .us, your country’s extension and the relevant other more topic based extensions such as .photography or .xyz). You are building some serious intellectual property here and it’s much cheaper to register yourself directly than later buying the domain from someone else. You can compare prices at domcomp. If your budget allows also register adjacent domain names for common typing or spelling errors (this can wait until you’ve secured funding).
- Have a logo designed. Sometimes it is necessary to have a logo designed to be able to register your trademark so this is a good time to commission your logo design work. Make sure that when you engage a logo designer, you agree with her that the full copyright of the design transfers ownership to you or your legal entity. Logo design, which is just a tiny part of the development of your brand, is also the subject of entire books and websites and likely a future post.
- Register your trademark in relevant markets. Registering your trademark makes sure you have the right to use it and the ability to protect it if others infringe on your rights. It is highly recommended that you get the support of a specialized trademark lawyer but you can do it yourself if you’re strapped for cash. Having seen startups fail to obtain the trademark for the name they were using, I would recommend doing this asap (before funding), but if you can take the risk and wait until the funding is in. You can register the trademark for the Benelux, for Europe or Globally (on a country-by-country basis).
- Keep monitoring your trademark. After you’ve registered your trademark, it’s important to monitor it frequently. This has several advantages. If you notice new applications that might infringe your registration, you can prevent that trademark from being registered. And if others are using your trademark without permission, you can take steps to stop them from doing so. And last but not least you can extend your registration in case the registration period ends in a specific jurisdiction.
The above 7 steps show that it’s really easy to get the branding IP basics right. It should not take you too much time and money and it will save you trouble later on. If you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments.