The world of intellectual property rights - the kind of material trademarks and service marks protect - can be extremely complex. This causes many small business owners to steer clear of service marks altogether, leaving their products and services vulnerable. However, by understanding the basics of service marks, small businesses can start taking advantage of the protection they offer.
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1. What is a service mark?
A service mark is a "word, phrase, logo, symbol, color, sound, or smell used by a business to identify a service and distinguish it from the services of its competitors." While a trademark protects a manufacturer's product from being duplicated or exploited by other manufacturers, service marks differentiate the services of one business from the services offered by other companies.
This not only protects your ideas and services from being stolen by someone else, but also brings clarity to the marketplace by ensuring your ability to distinguish your services from the services of others.
2. Do I have to register my service mark to make it effective?
Technically, no. Businesses are permitted to use the "SM" symbol for service mark without actually registering their service mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The unregistered use of the symbol simply indicates that your company is claiming the rights associated with the service mark.
But, as you can imagine, your claim to the service mark is significantly enhanced by registration. Registration serves legal, public notice of the service mark and provides you with exclusive rights for its use.
3. How do I register my service mark?
Small business owners must apply to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register their service marks. The application process is involved, but not impossible to complete. Also, there is a minimum application fee of $325 to apply for a service mark registration in a single class.
You will not be required to search for similar federal service mark registrations when you apply. However, many small business owners choose to do this anyway, because the application is nonrefundable, even it is discovered that you cannot register your service mark because it conflicts with someone else's previously registered mark.
Likewise, you should hire an attorney to help you with the registration process even though you are not required to do so. Unless you are current on the intricacies of trademark and service mark law, you could get yourself into trouble by trying to do it on your own.
4. Will a service mark boost my sales?
No, a service mark will do nothing to boost your sales. Its purpose is to protect your business and its services from being exploited in the marketplace, not to market your services to the world at large.
Many entrepreneurs operate under the misconception that simply registering a service mark for an idea ensures the success of that idea. They couldn't be more wrong. In fact, service marks should only be considered for services that have already demonstrated a track record of profitability.