The most common question about trademarks is probably also the most basic: what are they? The “impress your friends” answer to that question is that trademarks are typically a word (or words), phrase, logo, or symbol used in connection with the advertisement or sale of goods or services, and acts as an indicator of the source of those goods or services… But what does that actually mean?
Actually, you could probably find a half-dozen trademarks just looking around you right now. Are you wearing sneakers with that recognizable “swoosh” logo on it? Perhaps if you were to check the label inside your shirt it might read IZOD or CALVIN KLEIN. Maybe you’re even drinking a PEPSI. These are recognizable trademarks, and the brands they represent are built on using trademarks to distinguish their products and services from those of anyone else.
So let’s go back to our original question. Each of the names and the Nike logo I referenced above are trademarks because they tell you who made their various products. Hopefully these examples demonstrate what the more complicated definition above says: that trademarks are a form of identification that helps consumers figure out who made the goods or services they are buying.
Marks can also be used to identify service providers, such as DELTA for airline travel. These marks, while identical to trademarks in terms of their legal significance, are referred to as “service marks,” because they are associated with the sale of services, and not products.
Trademarks have substantial value to the individuals or businesses that own them, because they want their consumers to be able to tell them apart from competitors and to establish goodwill among those consumers. Businesses want their consumers to have a positive experience with the products or services they have provided, so that they will remember and return to the business for their future needs. They are also useful to consumers because consumers want to know the source of the goods and/or services they are buying.
Imagine if you had multiple business owners that were allowed to deliver and sell pizzas under the name PIZZA HUT. Pizza Hut executives would have major problems with competitors using the same name, and taking advantage of the Pizza Hut brand without having to invest in establishing that brand. And you, as the consumer… well you would have no idea what kind of pizza (style, quality, etc.) is going to show up at your door once you placed the order. Because of trademarks, you can travel across the country, and order a pizza with confidence that you pretty much know exactly what you are going to be getting.
That is the basic concept behind trademarks. Not all trademarks are created equal, and trademark rights may vary depending on some additional factors, like whether they are based in common law versus federally registered.
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