How a Company Name Can Be a Trademark

If you don’t already know, a trademark is a recognizable sign, design, or unique expression related to products or services of a particular source from those of others, although trademarks used to identify services are usually called service marks. The trademark owner can be an individual, business organization, or any legal entity. A trademark may be located on a package, a label, a voucher, or on the product itself. For the sake of corporate identity, trademarks are being displayed on company buildings. 

There are similarities and differences between a company name and a trademark or service mark. Consumers don't always know the name of the company putting out a product, but if used prominently, a company name can also be a brand. In most cases, today, companies are trying to achieve both ends of this spectrum in order to capitalize on extra marketing opportunities for their brand. 

A company name usually has an LLC or Inc. in it.  It is the name used to identify a business or organization and is frequently called a “trade name.”  The public is therefore on notice of the type of entity it is dealing with for that particular situation. A “trademark” identifies the source of a product, and a “service mark” identifies the source of a service. Both are frequently called a “trademark” or simply a “mark.” Nevertheless, merely registering a trade name with a Secretary of State’s office has been called “a trap for the unwary” as stated by other attorneys, because the Secretary of State only looks at other registered trade names which are identical to a proposed name.  This does not always provide enough safety each time you do a search on a Secretary of State or national website- so be aware. Someone else already may have trademark or service mark rights in a similar name even if it is not identical.  So it is important to search for such uses or you may be limited to using your trade name solely in company listings, on contracts and in formal government documents. 

An important difference between a trade name and a mark is that a trade name cannot be registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  Only if the trade name has a dual use as a trade name and also as a mark can it be regarded as registrable.  So, if you use your company name on a website, it may be regarded as an unregistrable trade name if it appears in small letters at the bottom or in the URL box, but it may also function as a mark if it appears in large letters at the top of the webpage itself. A registered mark has various advantages in pursuing an infringer.  But even an unregistered trade name can be protected against the use in the same geographic area of a confusingly similar trade name or mark.

Should you use the entity abbreviations like LLC, Inc. or similar designation when the trade name also appears as a mark?  It is probably nothing more than a matter of marketing preference.  What counts most is how the name is used—whether it refers to the company, or if it identifies with the source of its products or services.