Securing trademark protection provides a company with legal rights to market and sell its services or products, and offers this same company an opportunity to stop other companies from marketing or selling services or products that are, or could be, infringing upon its protected marks.
However, each country has different criteria guiding the trademark process, which introduces varied time and cost elements that can be difficult to navigate. Ignoring these laws could mean forever losing legal protection and the opportunity to market and sell goods or services under a valued brand name in key markets.
“There is no such thing as an international trademark, but U.S. copyrights can be enforced internationally,” says Tom Speiss, a shareholder at Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth, who works as a business adviser and brand manager.
Smart Business spoke with Speiss about managing domestic and global brand portfolios for companies operating at home and abroad.
How can companies protect their brands domestically?
Companies can protect their brands domestically through both trademark and copyright law. For trademark, the U.S. is a common-law country, which means trademark rights begin to be established as soon as a company starts using a mark in commerce. But it’s important to conduct a trademark availability search and, if the mark doesn’t infringe upon another’s mark and appears to be available as a federal trademark, then file an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to acquire federal trademark protection.
In addition, companies also can file for federal copyright protection through the Copyright Office. To start this process, product packaging, website material or other advertising material can be used as part of a copyright application. Once a copyright registration issues, the registration potentially can protect a company’s product packaging, Web content and advertising content, as well as the design elements of a trademark. The U.S. copyright registrations then may be enforced internationally, through a treaty known as the Berne Convention Treaty.
If a company has plans to expand in foreign markets, when should management consult an intellectual property (IP) attorney?
A company should bring in an IP attorney as soon as it starts thinking about foreign market expansion, even if the plan’s realization is years away. Companies must be advised concerning all trademark rules for the countries in consideration, including possible infringement issues; whether the brand name is even available; the timelines and costs for applications; how use and non-use might affect the rights being granted; and when a company is required to exercise any rights it has been granted before a mark is vulnerable to cancelation. Each of these steps can be measured in years and have a lot of moving pieces, so — as ideas are generated — counsel needs to be involved.
What are the criteria for foreign market selection?
Companies can point to home successes with their products, including sales and brand equity, as they venture out. However, the mark used in their home country may be unavailable in a foreign market, which means the company won’t be able to transfer that equity even though it’s a proven brand.
The recourse is to develop a new name. But that brings risk because then its history at home won’t translate to the new market. This is another reason to bring in an IP attorney at the onset of brand expansion to assist in successful brand development or expansion.
What should you ask your attorney regarding brand management in other countries?
The most important first step is determining whether the target country’s trademark laws are governed by the principle of first-to-use or first-to-file. IP attorneys also can help companies establish timelines, such as when a company needs to start using or selling a product in the target country. Good counsel will thoroughly search to discover if the mark to be used in the foreign market is already in use for the same or similar goods or services. Along the way, counsel can help clients understand what other regulations might be advantageous or impede selling in foreign markets.
Tom Speiss is a shareholder at Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. Reach him at (424) 214-7042 or [email protected]
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