Readers, don’t be mad at me for using the “One weird trick” meme. This “trick” isn’t even weird. It’s pretty common, but it extremely important for potentially saving yourself a ton of time, money and hassle. Are you ready?
It’s called a “knockout search.” This is what trademark attorneys call the initial search of various sources that is meant to “knock out” obvious bad choices from a list of potential candidates. You heard that right: you should have a list of candidates. Don’t fall in love with any single title/brand name/logo, in case it is already in use. It is important to keep an open mind about your branding in order to keep your options open.
How does it work?
A knockout search isn’t rocket science. It’s actually quite simple, but it takes some experience to know what to do with the results. You use the USPTO’s trademark search tool. You use the various state trademark office websites. You use the powerful search tools that the Internet provides (namely, Google and other search engines) to check for what are called “common law” marks.
You are looking for any obvious matches to your potential brand names, particularly those that are in the same category, or “class” of goods that your brand would be. Other things to look for are soundalikes, plural versions of the same name and the like. These, even though they are different, can still be considered infringing if in the same category of goods or services (and sometimes if they aren’t).
Another important part of this early process is evaluating the trademark distinctiveness of the choices. It is usually best to go for the more distinct brand name in order to get the most powerful protection. Check out my post on trademark distinctiveness for more info.
What comes next?
After you’ve knocked out the obviously problematic names, the next step is to hire a real trademark search company to conduct a thorough investigation. The price of this can vary, but if you plan to pour a lot of money into a brand to get it out there, it is usually worth doing a more comprehensive search. Before you engage in any of this, you should hire qualified legal counsel to walk you through the process.
An attorney with experience in trademark issues may be able to spot things, such as conflicting marks, that you may miss without a thorough understanding of trademark law. They may also be able to judge where there isn’t a conflict, even though you think there might be. It never hurts to have a little professional guidance, especially when the future of a new brand is concerned. However, it is possible to save some money by doing some of this work beforehand.
Hopefully this quick explanation of knockout searches gave you an idea of where to start when coming up with business ideas. Keeping legal issues in the back (or front) of your mind through the entire entrepreneurial process is important in order to avoid future conflicts, and more importantly, a weak brand.