Guest Post: Gray Reed intellectual property attorney David Lisch provides this two part series on Basics of Intellectual Property Law for Start-Ups. Part one focuses on trademarks and entity formation
At one point or another, all companies will be faced with the decision if, and how much, to invest in intellectual property protection. Let’s start with trademarks.
A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. A “service” mark distinguishes the source of a service, rather than a good, but the two are typically simply referred to as a “trademark” or “mark”.
There are two typical methods of filing a trademark: 1) when the mark is in use, filing a “use-based” or “Section 1(a)” application; and 2) when the mark is not in use yet (e.g., prior to forming the company or selling finished product), filing an “intent-to-use” or “Section 1(b)” application. For the latter, an “extension of time” must be filed every 6 months (for up to a cumulative time of 3 years) until the trademark is in use, otherwise the application will expire and a new application must be filed. The policy behind this is to avoid people “squatting” on a trademark for extended periods of time. Once the trademark is in use, a “statement of use” is filed with a specimen (example) showing the mark as used in connection with the described goods or services.
One should file a trademark prior to, or near the conception of a business. A trademark is relatively inexpensive, typically costing $225 in USPTO fees plus some time for an attorney to do brief search for potentially conflicting marks, search for which “classes” the mark should be filed in, and actually filing the mark. It is advantageous for a business to file a trademark early in the business cycle to assure (to the extent possible) that their mark is not conflicting with another’s mark. If such a conflict does occur, it is substantially cheaper to change the company name and perform rebranding early on. Moreover, if there are no conflicting marks, the company assures others will be precluded from filing “confusingly similar” marks.
While possible to file a pro-se trademark application, it is highly recommended to hire an attorney due to inflexibility of the rules regarding trademarks. For example, importantly, in general, the trademark should be filed under the entity name, not an individual’s name. This is because, while an individual may be the sole owner, CEO, President, etc. of a company, it is the company which has an intent-to-use, or is currently using the trademark. Should the later occur, where the mark is filed in the name of an individual, the trademark may later be deemed void. 37 C.F.R. § 2.71(d); TMEP §§ 803.06, 1201.02(b) (“An application is void if it was filed in the name of a party who did not own, or was not entitled to use, the applied-for mark on the application filing date.”). Moreover, unfortunately, such an error cannot be cured by amendment or assignment. TMEP §§ 803.06, 1201.02(b). There are also rules limiting recourse and future actions after filing the above-mentioned statement of use and specimen which an attorney will be integrally familiar with.
In sum, it is highly advantageous to register for a trademark soon after formation of an entity or early in the business cycle to assure both availability and protection of the business name, logo, slogan or services.
P.S. We would be remiss by not mentioning that there are some common law and/or state law remedies available without filing a federal trademark, however those will be saved for another discussion.
Form an Entity First
As discussed above, but worth reiterating, it is advisable to form an entity prior to filing any intellectual property. With trademarks, the mark should be filed with the entity as the owner due to the law essentially prohibiting assignment or correction of an intent-to-use application. If filed incorrectly, the application may be deemed void, and all money and efforts are lost and a new trademark must be filed which can only claim a newer filing date, thus allowing a greater possibility of other preceding marks being conflicted.
A patent (further discussed in the next segment of this series) is slightly different in that the initial owner of the patent are the (joint) inventor(s). While a proper employment agreement will require the employee to assign rights to the company, such is not always the case, especially with startups who are likely focused on tackling other initial challenges when just opening shop. Even if this isn’t the case, assuming the inventors are still cordial and willing, the patent application (or granted patent) can be assigned to an entity at any point in time. It is advantageous to have this assignment executed earlier rather than later to assure the inventors are still on good-terms with each other and the company and will easily comply.
Lastly, having all intellectual property held by the entity enables a cleaner presentation to current and potential investors. The entity, or anyone representative thereof, can state there are no hurdles to owning the IP, and the IP can be easily transferred in a merger or acquisition of the entity.
In the next segment, David will provide the basics of patent law and its importance for a start-up.