You may have heard that you don’t actually have to register a trademark; you only have to use it in business to have a right to it. That’s true to some extent – but beware!
Before investing in a business name, symbol, type of packaging, or any other distinctive representation of your business, it’s worth paying to conduct a trademark search. Sure, you could look around on Google, but that’s not the same thing as a proper trademark inquiry. The consequences of discovering too late that someone else is already using your idea are very serious. You may have to defend against a lawsuit, or destroy all your marketing materials or merchandise and start over from scratch – or both.
Recently, a Massachusetts company called Chocolate Therapy discovered this too late, and was forced to rebrand its entire business. The company ended up holding a contest to rename the store (with the winner getting a box of chocolates).
You should also consider investing in a federal trademark registration. Again, this isn’t absolutely necessary, but it gives you huge advantages. It allows you to claim your trademark nationwide (as opposed to just in the places where you currently do business), and it gives you a big leg up in court if there’s ever a dispute.
You can also file for registration before you even start using the trademark. This will protect you in the event that someone else beats you to the punch and starts actually using the trademark in business before you do.
Trademarks are particularly important for start-ups, because one of the key things that investors look for is whether a new company has properly secured its trademark rights.