Avoiding Trademark Infringement When You Choose a Business Name
Choosing your business’s name is one of the more important decisions you must make when starting a home business. This name will be at the core of your company’s branding and will generally be the first thing potential customers see when evaluating your company. Selecting the correct name for your home business is about more than just finding a clever or catchy title; you must also ensure that your chosen name does not infringe on any other business’s trademarks.
There are three common ways home businesses generally face trouble when selecting a business name. As long as you take the appropriate steps to thoroughly research your desired business name, you should avoid these widespread errors. There are many resources available to facilitate your research.
Consult your state’s Secretary of State to ensure that your desired name has not yet been registered by any other business in the state. Most Secretary of State websites have a business name lookup tool to help find duplicates. Search not only for your desired name, but also for similar-sounding business names with misspellings and synonyms.
If you plan to conduct business in more than one state, you must also search for similar business entities in those states. This is particularly important for Internet-based home businesses, as many states will classify you as doing business in that state if you contact even a single customer. For maximum security, search for your desired name in the business name lookup tools of every state in which you may conduct business.
Your name may also not infringe on any trademarks or patents owned by another business, even if the trademark or patent is unrelated to that business’s name. For example, if the Smith Company trademarked its mascot, the Hirsute Honeybee, for its new line of hair care products, you may not name your honey-selling business The Hirsute Honeybee. This is true even if the two businesses are located in separate states and operate in different industries.
Fortunately, names that have been protected in this way must be registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The Office’s website contains a searchable database of all registered trademarks. Perform a search here in the same way as you searched your Secretary of State’s database, looking again for similar-sounding names. Even though the name is not technically the same, a company called The Hairy Honeybee may still infringe on Smith Company’s trademark.
Finally, you must avoid selecting a name that could be in any way misleading, even if the name is not registered with your Secretary of State or trademarked with the USPTO. Though this type of infringement is much harder to find, entering your desired business name — along with any similar-sounding words, synonyms, and misspellings — into a search engine should reveal any potential infringements. In this area, the most important concern is selecting a name that is neither misleading nor deceptive.
For instance, the name Stairbarks may be easily confused with a popular green-and-white coffee company. If you established a coffee shop with that name, a court may view your selection as intentionally misleading. If, however, your business manufactures small stairs for dogs to use to climb to a couch, your name would likely not be seen as deceptive; no one, after all, would be misled into thinking that the large, multinational coffee chain shifted its business model toward canine convenience.
Though it may not seem like a critical element of starting your home business, you must spend time thoroughly researching your desired name. Any mistakes in this selection could mean that the Secretary of State will reject your filing documentation, costing you both time and a wasted filing fee. You may even expose your new business to a lawsuit several months or years after you start it, subjecting you to legal fees and potentially the cost of rebranding your entire business. If you need help conducting your research, enlist the aid of an experienced small business attorney.
And remember that if all else fails, more than one company has been successful with a made-up word as its business name.