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Trademarks differentiate your product and service; learn more at a free NKU seminar on April 12

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

Often new small business start-ups spend a considerable amount of time getting their business market plan, financial budget, and human resource needs into place.

Yet, intellectual property protection is often addressed afterward — when it may be too late.

Intellectual property includes patents, trade secrets, licensing, trademarks, and copyrights. For example, choosing a distinctive trademark for your product or service maximizes the advantages that a trademark potentially protects: positive consumer perception of your product or service; and avoiding the likelihood of confusion. A distinctive trademark (rather than a more generic, descriptive one) could potentially protect your business from those “me too” copycat competitors.

John Schlipp

John Schlipp

Marks of varying types have been around for as long as man has needed to identify things. We have all seen western cowboy movies where cattle were branded for ownership designation. Among the earliest and widely recognized trademarks were those stamped on swords and weaponry created by blacksmiths, as well as building bricks, pottery, lamps, and even loaves of bread made during the Roman Empire.

A trademark is a word, name, phrase, or symbol that identifies and distinguishes the business or provider of goods, services, or ideas. From an economic standpoint according to ipwatchdog.com, “…a trademark…allows a purchaser to identify goods or services that have been acceptable in the past and reject goods or services that have failed to live up to the desired standards…”

Trademarks registered with the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) are marked with an encircled letter “Ⓡ” while those registered by a state government or common law use are marked with a “TM” after the trademarked name or symbol, e.g. the NKU Norse logo shown here. The USPTO website describes common law rights existing from actual use of a mark. Common law allows posting a TM symbol without registration, but it is not as secure as registration with a government agency. You may also hear the expression “service mark,” or see the tag “SM,” which is basically the same. Where trademarks apply to products or brands, service marks apply to services by indicating the source of the service.

Business names may function as a trademark (such as Amazon.com) but only when it is associated with a product or service. Businesses register for their names separately at the state level. However, a trademark and a Web domain name are not the same thing.

NKU's logo

NKU’s logo

To avoid likelihood of confusion and a potential trademark infringement, searching the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) helps a business to determine whether another entity is already utilizing a federally registered trademark similar to a proposed trademark for its goods or services. Besides infringement (customer confusion), businesses should steer away from trademarks which are merely descriptive of its product or service, e.g. Bill’s Donut Shop. The USPTO rarely grants such generic requests. Distinctive trademarks that are clever or unique create an exclusive consumer association of a business’s goods or services. Among the most distinctive marks are those that are fanciful (e.g. Kodak) or arbitrary (e.g. Apple computers).

Steely Library’s Intellectual Property Awareness Center (IPAC) at NKU is an official Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) designated by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). The IPAC (http://ipac.nku.edu/) utilizes these PTRC resources to support free intellectual property programs and consultations for those looking for information related to copyright, trademark, patent, and other intellectual property topics. Contact or visit the IPAC for guidance on patent or trademark searching.

Attend a related FREE business seminar mid-April entitled “How to Plant & Grow Your Business.”


In addition to intellectual property awareness, this seminar helps those entrepreneurs who are considering developing a new invention, starting a new business, or existing businesses who wish to improve their business performance. This event is brought to you by the Kentucky Innovation Network at Northern Kentucky, NKU Grant County Center, NKU Intellectual Property Awareness Center (IPAC), NKU Small Business Development Center, Central Kentucky Inventors Council, Inventor’s Council of Cincinnati, and others. 

This FREE event is scheduled Tuesday, April 12 from 5:30 – 8 p.m. at NKU Grant County Center, 390 North Main Street, Williamstown 41097. Pre-registration is requested at one of these options:
Phone: 859-292-7780
On-line: nkystartups.com

John Schlipp is an Intellectual Property Librarian and Associate Professor of Library Services at W. Frank Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University. He is the manager of the IPAC: Intellectual Property Awareness Center (http://ipac.nku.edu) at Steely Library.

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