Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurs

Protecting Service Marks

Service marks are like trademarks, except that a service mark is used by a person or entity to identify services rendered or offered and to distinguish them from the services rendered or offered by another person. The services must be provided to the public or any party other than the applicant. If services are sold or offered, think "service mark." So how do you protect a service mark?

Businesses that sell goods and products take great pains to protect their trademarks.

Protecting Service Marks

But service-oriented businesses often neglect to take similar measures to protect their service marks, even though they are just as important for their success of their company. If you've never thought about protecting your service mark before, it's not too late to get started.

The task of protecting a service mark generally involves performing appropriate notifications for the mark and promoting its proper usage. Like trademarks, improper usage of a service mark can severely restrict or even negate your ability to defend your ownership rights. No matter how secure you may think your service mark is, there are still some basic precautions that need to happen on a regular basis.

1. Provide Notification of Your Service Mark Rights

It is incumbent upon you to notify the public about your service mark rights. If your service mark is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, the most common notification device is the use of the ® symbol in conjunction with the service mark itself. If your service mark is not registered, you are legally prohibited from using the ® symbol and should instead use the letters SM for service mark or TM for trademarks.

2. Use Your Service Mark as an Adjective

Proper application of a service mark dictates that it be used as an adjective rather than a noun. Well-known brands spend a lot of time and effort educating the public about this little known fact. For example, Kleenex® goes out of its way to include the words "Facial Tissue" after the brand name since failure to do so could promote the generic use of the term and negate the service mark.

3. Distinguish Your Service Mark

When you use your service mark, make sure it stands out from the surrounding text. You do this by changing the font, using all capital letters, bolding, italicizing, etc. The important thing is to reinforce the idea that the mark is a descriptor and not a generic name for your service.

4. Use Your Service Mark Frequently

An unused service mark is of little value to your business. More importantly, unless you use your service mark on a regular basis, you have no way of notifying the public about your ownership of it. The more you use your service mark, the easier it will be to defend your ownership of it.

5. Limit Licensing Your Service Mark to Others

It is possible to create an arrangement in which you license your service mark for use by someone else. It's called "naked licensing" and unfortunately it may jeopardize your service mark if it isn't done right.

The only way to license your service mark while still protecting is through carefully crafted and enforced licensing agreements. If for some reason you need to license your service mark, consult an attorney to make sure all your bases are covered.

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