It can feel like a veritable alphabet soup out there.
There are seemingly endless options for business symbols designating ownership.
And when you see them popping up on every business name, tagline, logo, website footer, and email sign-off, it can get really confusing about the specific—and legal—purpose for each one.
You want to protect your business, but how do you know which symbol is the right one for you to use?
Because, let’s face it, while protecting your business assets is essential, the last thing you want to do is land yourself in hot water because you misused a symbol that wasn’t meant for you.
**Real quick, first: this post is legal education and information. It’s not business, financial, or legal advice, and it doesn’t create an attorney-client relationship between us.
This is also an attorney communication under Rule 7.2 of the Rules of Professional Conduct of the State Bar of California and Business and Professions Code Sections 6157-6159.2.
Please chat with an attorney in your area to make sure you’re protecting your business.**
What you can–and can’t–protect with business symbols
When we’re dealing with the symbols we’re talking about here, we’re dealing with protection of Intellectual Property (IP) rights.
Intellectual property refers to creations of your mind or exclusive knowledge and can span everything from copyrights, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets.
But that doesn’t mean you can slap a symbol on your intellectual property and assume it’s protected.
Especially if you’re using the WRONG symbol.
Putting potential infringers on notice with the copyright © symbol
Once you understand what intellectual property is, you want to claim your rights to it as quickly as possible. But how do you do that in a way that actually protects you?
You could start by attaching the copyright © symbol to your original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium (aka your blog posts, digital courses, coaching handouts, etc.)
While you were previously required to include a copyright notice on your work for it to take effect, it’s now simply recommended to put people on notice that you’re claiming your copyright rights.
But once your idea is physically manifested, copyright rights are automatically attached.
And that’s great, but is it enough?
If you’re serious about protecting yourself from copycats and infringers, registration with the United States Copyright Office is required to do things like:
- Actually enforce your copyright rights, and
- Obtain things like statutory attorney’s fees and statutory damages.
When to use the Trademark (™) and Service Mark (℠) symbols
You know what a trademark is: it’s a unique identifier for goods that allows your customers to know at a glance that the product they’re getting is coming from you.
Did you know that a service mark is the same thing, but for services?
It’s less common to see the SM symbol in use, but you technically wouldn’t use the TM symbol for your online service business (like my law firm providing legal services, for example) the same way you would for, say, soap or hair products.
Both of these marks can be used to indicate you claim common law rights to the work you’re attaching the mark to, even though it isn’t a registered mark.
But while it may act as a deterrent to potential infringers, there’s a limit to how much you can actually do to enforce your rights until your mark is registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USTPO).
The power of ® for registered trademarks
The most comprehensive way to protect your business assets is through federal registration of your mark.
You’ll know if someone has registered their trade or service mark if you see the ® symbol next to something.
Using this symbol without registration is actually a violation of federal law TMEP 906.04.
Even if you have a pending application, US trademark law states that improper use of the federal registration symbol is deliberately misleading and considered fraud.
So you definitely don’t want to use this symbol unless you know you’re allowed to.
Protect your business with the right symbol, and don’t let copycats, infringers, or fraudsters take advantage of you.
And if you need help navigating the use ℠, ™, ©, and ®, book your legal strategy session so you can rest easy knowing you’ve taken the necessary steps to protect your online business.