Just how protectable your trademark is varies depending on whether it is deemed to be: 1) arbitrary and fanciful (the most protectable category); 2) suggestive; 3) descriptive (which is only protectable if "secondary meaning" can be established); or 4) generic (which is given little or no protection). In simple terms, the more unique your name is the more easily protection is available for it as a trademark. That is one reason that some of the strongest trademarks are words that were invented just for the purpose so that they fall into the first "arbitrary and fanciful" category. Such invented names include "Nike", "Rolex", "Exxon", and "Microsoft". When it comes to rock bands, names such as "Smashing Pumpkins", "Foo Fighters" and "Brooklyn Funk Essentials" would obviously fall into this distinctive arbitrary and fanciful category.
The first person to use a trademark has superior rights over a subsequent user of a similar trademark. The criterion for determining infringement of a trademark is the "likelihood of confusion" test. Under the Lanham Act (which is U.S. Federal Law governing trademarks), use of a trademark likely to cause confusion, mistake or deception by the public is prohibited. If your name or mark is deemed to be confusingly similar to a previously existing trademark, the prior user will have grounds for a trademark infringement action against you.
Therefore, before investing too much time, effort and money in establishing your prospective trademark it is a good idea to do a trademark search to make sure nobody else has been using the same or a confusingly similar name before you. Keep in mind that a mere search of current Federal trademark registrations may not be sufficient. In the event that a full nationwide search from one of the companies that specializes in doing such searches is beyond your budget, then at least do an online search through Google and other online search engines. This is important because trademark rights are based on "first use." Therefore, even if someone does not file for or procure a Federal trademark registration, certain rights vest in that person under state law from the moment they start using the name. If they were using a particular name similar to yours prior to when you first started using your name then, under state law, even if you file a Federal trademark registration before that prior user files, he or she could still prevent you from using your name (and prevent or limit the release of your records under your name). The usual solution to such a problem is to buy out that person's rights, but this can be costly. However, the last thing you want to do is find out of the eve of your first big record release that someone else was using the name you have printed on all of the CD covers before you were using it, and you now have to scrap all of your records.
Once you are sure that the name you want to use is clear, the best way to protect your rights is to file an application for Federal trademark registration. Although certain ownership rights accrue to you in your trademark from the time you first start using it as a source identifier for yourself or your band, Federal registration will give you, among other things, a legal presumption of first use and ownership of the name nationwide. It will allow you to commence legal action in Federal court and may entitle you to injunctive relief (which is an order by the court that the infringer cease using the name until the case is resolved), treble damages and legal fees.
Therefore, having determined that no other person or entity is using the name that you want to use as our trademark, the next step is to file an application for trademark registration in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The filing starts a process that can span several months. Although the time between filing the application and actually receiving your trademark registration certificate could be six months to a year, the effectiveness of the registration is retroactive to the date of first use. Therefore, once you start using a name is it best to continue. In fact, in order to maintain your trademark rights you must continue to use the name and you must police your trademark and beware of others who may use a confusingly similar name to yours.
In summary, the best way for a new artist or group to proceed is to choose as unique a name as you can think of, do a comprehensive search to be sure that it is uniquely your own, and then file an application for Federal trademark registration. Most importantly, remember that trademark rights are based on use so once you choose a name - use it or loose it!
Wallace Collins is an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer with more than 30 years of experience based in
New York. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before receiving his law degree from . Tel: (212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com Fordham Law School