By Shahrina Ankhi-Krol
You are the owner of a small pet business. Whether you’re making treats, toys, apparel or devices like leashes or collars, you’re most likely doing it out of passion for the well-being of animals. Your business stems from the love and compassion you feel for all pets, not just your own. So, you rush. You rush and make your products; you rush and tell your friends and family about your products; you rush and advertise to the entire world on the internet. Somewhere, in the midst of it all, you also manage to create a business entity to “legitimize” your business. That’s great; however, in all that rush, you may have forgotten something very important: to protect your brand.
What is your brand and how can you protect it? Your brand differentiates and distinguishes your products and services from those of different businesses, and it can have many components, including but not limited to your name, logo, slogan and any distinguishing look or feature. These are all marks which can and should be protected by seeking trademark registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to ensure that your brand can expand without falling victim to a copycat. Brand protection can prevent the loss of revenue, reputation and customer trust that may occur when someone infringes on your rights and exploits your brand for their own gain. Additionally, properly protecting your brand can increase your business’s value, during both its growth and potential sale.
As a business and intellectual property lawyer, I often encounter business owners who are unaware or misinformed of the process of brand protection. Many people mistakenly believe that simply registering a business, for example, to start a limited liability corporation, protects the business name throughout the entire country. Some people also believe that securing a domain name or social media handle is sufficient to protect their brand. That’s simply not true.
While registering your business may provide some rights to your business name in the state of formation, it might not provide you with the power to claim trademark infringement or successfully defeat a claim of infringing on others’ trademark rights.
If you have a logo and other original creative materials, such as labels for your products, it may also be a good idea to register the materials with the Copyright Office. That way, if there is ever an infringement of such materials, you can assert claims under trademark and copyright laws. You may own a business that sells pet treats, toys, apparel and devices, and you may have a name for each of your products. In order to be fully protected under trademark law, you should apply for the trademark registration of your business name, the name(s) of your products, your logo(s), your slogan(s) and any distinguishing look or feature of your products (think red-sole shoes sold by Louboutin). Yes, protecting multiple aspects of your brand can require multiple trademark applications, but the cost of defending an alleged trademark infringement is more expensive than the cost of applying for trademark registration. Although registering your trademarks with the USPTO is not mandatory, it has several advantages, including notice to the public of your ownership of the mark, legal presumption of ownership nationwide, and exclusive right to use the mark on or in connection with the goods and/or services listed in the registration.
I give law-related educational talks throughout the country, and I have had the opportunity to meet and speak to many wonderful entrepreneurs in the pet industry. “Who will steal my brand?” seems to be a prevalent question among pet industry professionals. However, I have met business owners who have had aspects of their brand copied by people they meet in business meetings, expositions, coffee chats, etc.… Even if you do not think that someone will copy your brand, failing to protect your brand is a dangerous gamble for your business. If you are afraid of the process involved in seeking trademark registration, you can consult and hire an attorney to handle the matter on your behalf. Investing in brand protection today can help deter others from copying your brand, saving you time, money and headaches later.