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What’s in a Name: How to Choose & Legally Protect Your Business Name

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When starting out on a new business, choosing the perfect business name is one of the most exciting parts of getting set up. We want something witty that sticks in people’s minds and perfectly sums up exactly what we do.

Brainstorming the perfect business name can be tricky, and it is made more complex by the fact that just because we think we have come up with the perfect business name does not mean that we can use it.

Before we start doing anything with our fantastic new business name, we need to make sure that we are actually allowed to use it. We don’t want to find ourselves with a great new website and fancy business cards only to have another business come in and stop us from using our new name, and even potentially request damages. We can save ourselves a lot of time and stress by taking the time to correctly confirm whether our chosen business name is available for us to use.

Trademark Law

Business names are regulated under Trademark Law. Regulations are in place to prevent businesses from using a business name that will likely lead them to be confused with a competing business. If a business is found to be infringing on another business’s trademark, it can be forced to change its name, which can be a costly setback, and sometimes forced to pay damages.

It is not always prohibited to use a business name already in use. If the business already using the term is relatively small and provides drastically different services to you, you may still be able to use the name. The same applies if the business is located a significant distance from where you are and only serves a limited community, which your business is unlikely to act.

Research your Business Name

Once you have come up with an appropriate business name, you’ll need to search specific sites to ensure that available for your use.

For example if you intend to use the name country wide then use a federal database of registered trademarks.

Some companies with a local focus will only register their trademark at the state level; however, under United States law, a business can claim a brand by using it without registration.

Search the federal database of registered trademarks, including every trademark registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Also do a state-level search for your state, and neighboring states if you think that your business will be active there.

The next place to search is the world wide web. In fact, it is probably worth doing a basic internet search before investing time and effort in trademark searches as most companies have a web presence, so this is a fast way to eliminate names.

As well as searching for companies using your exact name, look out for companies using a similar name that are active in a similar field. If there is too much crossover in your brand and service, these companies may also be able to prevent you from using your selected name under trademark law.

This type of internet search also helps you make sure that your selected business name is available as a domain name when establishing your own web presence. Check with different abbreviations and hyphens and alternative top-level domains (such as .com or .net). While you may legally be able to use a business name, you may still want to avoid it if another company is already using your preferred web domain or a very similar domain.

Conduct Business Entity Search

Finally, you need to check if the business name is available in your state. This search has to do on a state level. Each state maintains a database of all corporations, limited liability companies (LLCs) and limited partnerships registered in the state. Each state will also have a fictitious name database, which lists all registered business names in the state regardless of whether they have registered a trademark or registered as a corporation with the state. This is the last search that will show up unlisted companies without a web presence.

Register your Trademark

Once you have found a business name that you can use, it is a good idea to think about registering. While it is not legally required to write a trademark to start using it, registering your brand can be helpful if you do ever find that you need to defend your trademark in court. Plus, it may help reduce the risk of others using your name, as it will be easier for them to locate your business when they do their own new business trademark search.