Business is business, and the law is the law. Sometimes the combination of these two are unavoidable, even necessary, such as when it comes to business entity formation, contracts, licensing, permits, and the list goes on. In today’s electronic and technology-driven economy, intangible or intellectual property is becoming even more valuable than ever. When it comes to businesses, a lot of this comes down to their brand, their name, their slogans, which often use trademark protection to solidify and help protect these intangibles.
Trademarks as a system, were fundamentally designed to help avoid consumer confusion. That is ultimately the purpose. Trademark rights and protections are designed to prevent other businesses from coming up with products that use other business’ names, phrases, and sometimes even look and feel, sound, or color, which can cause consumers to buy something they thought was made by someone else because they were confused. Imagine a world without trademark protection. You’d probably never know for sure if those shoes with the Swoosh on them were actually made by Nike or not!
In an interesting local trademark story, a while back, Longmont-based craft beermaker, Left Hand Brewing Company, tried to register the trademark for the word “Nitro” as it relates to beer, after it came out with its Milk Stout Nitro beer. This is not the first time we have talked about craft brewery trademark issues, and it likely won’t be the last. Craft brewery trademark disputes are becoming more and more common.
In this case, the company wanted to use the word Nitro to distinguish its nitrogenated beers. It may seem like a harmless thing to do, but boy did it bring the company a lot of trouble. Other companies took action when they saw Left Hand trying to trademark the word, maybe you’ve heard of some of them, they include the makers of Budweiser, Samuel Adams, and Guinness!
Left Hand claimed it was doing it to prevent a bigger beermaker from ultimately registering the trademark, but due to the legal action from other brewers and the upset from the craft beer community over Left Hand’s actions, the company ultimately withdrew its efforts. Craft beerdrinkers were upset that Left Hand was trying to essentially “own” the word Nitro as it relates to beer. Other brewers use nitrogen in their products too, and being such a clear choice for a descriptive word, it only makes sense to use it to differentiate it from traditionally carbonated products.
Let this be a lesson. Whenever your business is thinking about asserting intellectual property rights or trademarks over something, it is important to think of it not only as a legal decision but a business decision as well. Businesses must think about how these actions will impact their competitors and how they might respond. Additionally, the way existing and potential consumers of your business’ products may respond to the news is critical to consider too.
Even if you may have a valid legal claim to something, it may not always be the best business decision to pursue it to the fullest. Cost-benefit analysis is key to situations like this, and it is clearly a good idea to consider both the business and legal ramifications of the different courses of action available to you. Branding is about more than logos, names, trademarks, etc. It is about the image your portray as a company, and a growing component of that is how litigious the company is, especially if it can be perceived as an “unfair” or “unnecessary” use of the legal system.
If your business needs help regarding a trademark, other intellectual property, or other business legal needs, do not hesitate to reach out to the Law Office of E.C. Lewis, P.C., home of your Denver Business Attorney, Elizabeth Lewis, at 720-258-6647 or email her at email@example.com.
If you are thinking about starting a new business, or just thought of an idea for a business, many people think someone out there is already doing it and that they should not bother. Instead of stopping there, why not spend just a few moments putting this idea to the test? By taking some simple steps, you can get a basic answer to the question of whether or not someone is doing the idea that you thought of. Be sure and also take a look at How to Research Your Business Name.
Step one is easy enough, run a few searches online, with your preferred search engine, of your business idea, to see if there is someone out there using it already. If you do find something similar or related to what you had in mind, it is important to take note of just how alike these findings are to your idea. Also look at whether or not they are actively using the idea and what areas of the country they are located in. If you do not find anything using broad terms or find too many results to manage, consider narrowing your search with more specific terms or with geographical terms, to give you more precise results.
Step two is a little more tedious, but it can give you some of the most important information of all. Visit the U.S. Patent Office website to search trademarks and patents, to see if anyone has any federal protections on ideas for slogans, symbols, inventions, and others.
To search through the trademark database, go to http://tmsearch.uspto.gov and run some Basic Word Mark searches. If you find something similar to your idea, follow this up with a normal online search to see if they are still an active company. You want to look and see whether or not they are actually selling or doing whatever it is they claimed is associated with the trademark. This is only the federal registry, so you will also want to take a look at your state’s registry too. Colorado’s can be found at http://www.sos.state.co.us/biz/BusinessEntityCriteriaExt.do, and this will search business names and trademarks. Remember that when it comes to trademarks, there are federal, state, and common law protections available to be considered.
To search the federal patent register, go to http://appft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/ and click on Quick Search under Patents. Now try running different terms based on your business idea to see if someone has already patented what you had in mind. Remember that in order to be patentable, the idea must be an invention or improvement to an existing invention that is useful, novel, non-obvious, adequately described or enabled, and claimed by the inventor in clear and definite terms.
Copyrighted works can also be useful things to search through if your business idea involves any creative works. You can visit http://copyright.gov/eco/ and search their database. This database will only search the national registry, meaning someone must have registered their copyright for it to be here (which is not required), so it is important to note that this search is not exhaustive. However, this is still an important place to check regardless.
If you do not turn up any results that are similar using the various search engines and techniques described here, this is good news, but keep in mind that these are basic searches and it is recommended that you speak with an attorney to discuss if more thorough searching is necessary. Nevertheless, the information you obtained will still be helpful in determining what your next step should be.
On the other hand, if you did find someone is already doing what you had in mind, do not give up! Start thinking about a different approach to whatever the existing business is selling or doing, so you can continue refining your entrepreneurial ideas. Keep in mind that you can always consider sitting down with an attorney to explore the level of differences necessary to move forward with your business and protect you against related businesses already operating.
If you have any questions about your findings or you are ready to take the next step in starting your business or protecting your business idea, contact the Law Office of E.C. Lewis PC, home of your Denver Business Lawyer, Elizabeth Lewis, 720-258-6647 or email her at Elizabeth.Lewis@eclewis.com.