What is a trademark?
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) explains:
A trademark can be any word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination of these things that identifies your goods or services.
The USPTO goes on to say that a trademark is how customers recognize your business and distinguish you from your competitors. It is often a brand name, logo, or phrase associated with a particular business enterprise (including nonprofits).
For example, UNICEF is a trademark of the United Nations Children's Fund.
As a nonprofit, you are providing quality services, accomplishing your mission, raising funds, and trying to promote public awareness. No matter your nonprofit's core mission, tasks like these are often the root of your list of things to do. But there's one more thing you may need to consider adding to that list, and that's obtaining a federal trademark registration for your name.
Trademark is an area of law that, in our experience, gets too little attention from nonprofit leaders. And with all the other legal issues on their plates (e.g., IRS compliance, contracts, employment), it is totally understandable! Yet trademark law is relevant to almost all nonprofits.
Did you know that technically the trademark does not have to be registered for common law rights to apply? Common law trademark rights belong to anyone who can prove they actually used it first in commerce.
Did you know that it is not always necessary to register a trademark to have legal protection?
Your protection comes from using the trademark while in business, not necessarily from the actual registration of the trademark.
If your nonprofit has a name or logo that is used in everyday business, you already have common law trademark rights in the geographic region where you use the trademark unless another organization has previously registered the mark. For example, if your nonprofit is using its name to do business in Missouri, then you have a common law trademark there.
So you might be thinking, in this case, why would I still need a federally registered trademark as a nonprofit? Let's dive into some important benefits.
Benefits of Registering a Trademark for a Nonprofit
Right off the bat, we can tell you that, compared to common law trademark rights, registering your nonprofit trademark can provide more easily enforceable rights, extra protection, and added benefits. Some of the legal benefits of registering a trademark for a nonprofit include:
- You will be protected in all 50 states. This is important even if you operate only locally, as it will protect your mark from being infringed in another state and potentially causing confusion among donors, clients, or other stakeholders.
- You may have less complicated dispute resolution. With a registered trademark, you have extremely strong proof of ownership and rights.
- You will have access to federal courts. In the event of trademark infringement, your nonprofit will have access to the federal court system to stop the infringement. Without a federal registration of your trademark, you are unable to sue in federal court.
- You will have exclusive rights. From the date of registration, your nonprofit will have exclusive rights to the trademark even in geographic locations where it doesn't do business.
- You may be able to obtain a larger judgment if your trademark is infringed. When a trademark is registered, the owner could potentially be awarded damages that resulted from the infringement, any profits that the infringer made as a result of using the registered trademark, and legal fees and costs.
Costs of Registering a Trademark for a Nonprofit
Registering and maintaining a trademark does come with a price tag. Before officially beginning the process of registering a trademark, a thorough search is highly recommended. It is important that the search be conducted by a professional who knows where to look and what they are looking for, as a full search requires much more than simply going onto the US Patent & Trademark Office website and performing a basic search.
The cost to register a trademark also includes USPTO application fees along with other maintenance fees. And of course, hiring an attorney to register the trademark for you comes with a cost.
But when looking at all the potential benefits of registering your trademark, we believe that the costs are much than simply a cost--they're an investment in building and protecting your organization's brand.
We know that nonprofit leaders are incredibly busy with a seemingly unending list of tasks to complete. But by adding “register trademark” to the top of your to-do list, you will actively take steps towards protecting the goodwill and reputation you and your team have worked so very hard to build and maintain.
The attorneys at Mission Counsel understand trademarks and how they apply to nonprofit organizations of all sizes. We consider our job to be navigating the legal terrain so that you don't have to. You can spend your time advancing your nonprofit's goals and mission instead of worrying about whether you are legally compliant and protected. We're headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, but we work throughout both Kansas and Missouri. At Mission Counsel, we perform trademark searches and registrations for nonprofits and businesses on a transparent, flat-fee basis. Please schedule a free 15-minute call with us here or give us a call at (816) 368-1181.