What’s the Difference Between a Trademark and a Trade Name?

Trademark identifies goods or services and Trade Name identifies businesses, vocations or occupations

The terms "trade-mark" and "trade name" are defined in 15 U.S.C. § 1127:

"The term 'trade-mark' includes any word, name, symbol, or device or any combination thereof adopted and used by a manufacturer or merchant to identify his goods and distinguish them from those manufactured or sold by others."

"The terms 'trade name' and 'commercial name' include individual names and surnames, firm names and trade names used by manufacturers, industrialists, merchants, agriculturists, and others to identify their businesses, vocations, or occupations; . . ."

Trademark and Trade Name rights are not the same

[T]rade names symbolize reputation of business as whole, whereas trademarks and service marks are designed to identify and distinguish company's goods and services; as with right to trade name, right to control use of trademark depends on priority of use. Stephen W. Boney Inc. v. Boney Services Inc., 44 USPQ2d 1225 (9th Cir. 1997)

Trademark and Trade Name Basics:

Priority of Use, Distinctiveness, Likelihood of Confusion are Key

United States federal and state trademark and trade name laws are subsets of unfair competition laws. Many states specifically mention trade names in their trademark statutes and courts rely on unfair competition and similar causes of action to prevent deception.

PRIORITY OF USE The ‘First to Use’ a trademark or trade name (the use that has priority) acquires rights in that mark or name if the designation is inherently strong and if the designation follows other common law principals. Priority of use is determined by who was the first to use a designation in commerce.     Section 1127 of the Lanham Act defines the term "use" "For the purposes of this chapter a mark shall be deemed to be used in commerce (a) on goods when it is placed in any manner on the goods or their containers or the displays associated therewith or on the tags or labels affixed thereto and the goods are sold or transported in commerce and (b) on services when it is used or displayed in the sale or advertising of services and the services are rendered in commerce, or the services are rendered in more than one State or in this and a foreign country and the person rendering the services is engaged in commerce in connection therewith."

DISTINCTIVENESS  Inherent strength is not something that is automatically present in common words, phrases or designs. Extensive third party use of chosen words weighs against a finding that a trade name is strong. Lang v. Retirement Living Pub. Co., Inc., 949 F. 2d 576 (2nd Cir. 1991).

Potential trademarks and parts of potential trademarks that are not inherently distinctive, such as those that only contain words or designs that describe the product or service being sold or those who would use the product or service (also called merely descriptive trademarks), are not given strong legal rights when first used but may acquire legal rights over time or with lots of advertising or use.  If the potential trademark or part of the potential trademark is generic, meaning that it identifies the class of products or services, the generic terms have no trademark rights and cannot acquire legal rights over time.

The date when a business obtains common law rights in a name or other designation (sometimes known as “trade identity rights’) depends on the distinctiveness of the name. “A business will obtain rights in the mark upon first use only if the mark is inherently distinctive. If the mark is not inherently distinctive, a business may obtain ownership rights in the mark when the mark attains a secondary meaning.”  Coach House Restaurant, Inc. v. Coach and Six Restaurants, Inc., 934 F.2d at 1559 (C.A.11 (Ga.), 1991). Even if someone uses something as a trademark, “if it is not distinctive, the user does not have a trademark because he has no existing trademark rights.” Otto Roth & Company, Inc. v. Universal Foods Corporation, 640 F.2d 1317 (Fed. Cir. 1981).

LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION  The central issue in trade name infringement cases is the same as it is in trademark cases, namely, whether there is a likelihood of confusion. See Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition § 20; Lang v. Retirement Living Pub. Co., Inc., 949 F. 2d 576 (2nd Cir. 1991). See Likelihood of confusion tests for the internet and circuit courts at http://likelihoodofconfusiontrademark.com/likelihoodofconfusioninternet.html.

Where Do Common Law Trademark Rights Apply?

Common law trademark rights (where defined by state law, local law, case law or federal unfair competition laws) exist where trade has taken place that qualifies as trademark use (or trade name use or service mark use) which traditionally used to be in the isolated local geographic areas where the trade actually took place or where the designation was actually used. When someone from one state can order from someone in another state on a worldwide web and that product is shipped on a interstate freeway to another state or the service is provided in another state, the idea of local trade is questionable. One state’s law has these definitions:

MARK. Any trade name, trademark, or service mark entitled to registration under this article whether registered or not.

USED. A mark shall be deemed to be used in this state:

a. On goods or their containers or the displays associated therewith or on the tags or labels affixed thereto when such goods are sold or otherwise distributed in the state;

b. In connection with services when it is used or displayed in the sale or advertising of services and the services are rendered in this state; and

c. In connection with a business when it identifies the business to persons in this state.

Does local even exist anymore? Use of internet web sites for selling throughout the U.S. may change the scope of where common law rights exist and how they can be protected and enforced. Sometimes this means you can get a cease and desist letter at your small business in a small town on the East Coast from a big city West Coast business for using a confusingly similar trademark on the internet to promote a local business. Success can bring its own problems.

It’s all about goodwill, the more successful that a trademark or trademark is for helping consumers to make a positive connection between a product or service or business, the more likely it is that someone will try to compete by taking the trademark or trade name or something similar (may be OK) or confusingly similar (may be infringement) to use it for themselves. Some businesses may do it intentionally: Why take the time to build goodwill when you can use a name that is already associated with goodwill? Some businesses may do it unintentionally: Why should I verify that I have a right to use a name when I like the name and it costs money to verify that it is not being used already and I Googled it and nothing came up?

Common law rights can be used to stop someone else’s use. A common law mark may be able to successfully oppose a confusingly similar federal registration or cancel a federally registered trademark or sue someone in federal or state court if the trademarks compete in the same or similar products or services in the same geographical area if the alleged common law trademark owner can show prior use (or senior use) of the mark. The Lanham Act provides that a registered mark, even if it has become incontestable, still may be challenged "to the extent, if any, to which the use of a mark registered on the principal register infringes a valid right acquired under the law of any State or Territory by use of a mark or trade name continuing from a date prior to the date of registration under this chapter of such registered mark." 15 U.S.C. 1065 as quoted in Advance Stores Co. Inc. v. Refinishing Spec. Inc., 188 F.3d at 411 (6th Cir., 1999). A challenge to a registered mark by an unregistered mark could be in a USPTO opposition or cancellation or in a state or federal court. See NoticeOfOpposition.com for more information on oppositions and cancellations.

If someone else’s use is also not a registered use, how can they be stopped?  A court would be the normal forum to decide and it depends on the facts involved. In deciding cases involving charges that the exclusive use of a trademark has been invaded, there is no precise formula or rule of law which can be applied mechanically to determine whether there has been an infringement of a trademark or name. Each case must be decided on its own facts and circumstances. . .  [W]hen the final outcome on a given set of facts may vary, not with the legal concepts involved, but their application to particular states of fact, the pattern is inevitably less clear than in cases where a definite rule is to be applied." How a particular word has been used and how it has been understood by the public or the trade is a question of fact. Dresser Industries, Inc. v. Heraeus Engelhard Vacuum, Inc., 395 F.2d 457 (3rd Cir., 1968) (internal citations omitted)

Why not just stick with common law rights? Common law may be enough to deter some from using a trade mark or trade name but enforcement can be difficult from both sides. Sometimes businesses start on a small scale and expand to a point where infringement takes place. Enforcement often starts with a cease and desist letter and may lead to a civil court case. Trying to enforce a common law right may mean one do over after another because a civil court case only applies to the parties involved in the case. Stopping one person from using your name may cost more than a federal registration would have cost in the first place and when you are done stopping the first person you still just have a common law right that you are going to have to keep enforcing on a piecemeal basis. If this first use by someone else is a federal registration of the mark by a junior user, the junior user will have a much easier time stopping you than you will have in stopping them. (Federal registrations have presumptive rights.) Many third parties such as Facebook, Twitter, domain name registrars, web site hosts, and others have policies that protect federal registrations. Someone else who registers your common law name will have presumptive rights in that mark and trying to stop them can be very difficult and expensive and the cause of a lot of heart ache and distress.

Common law trademarks do not enjoy the advantages of federal registration (see below) which include being protected more thoroughly from infringement and counterfeiting trademarks. Can’t get federal registration? Marks that do not qualify for federal registration may not qualify for common law protection for the same reasons: federal laws are based on the same or similar common law principles. Likewise, having a federal registration does not protect a business from being challenged by a senior user of a common law trademark. USPTO trademark examiners do not examine potential trademarks for potential infringement by state or common law marks. The USPTO only looks at other USPTO federal registrations for potentially conflicting marks.

Federal Registration Expands the Reach of a Trademark

[T]he scope of federal trademark protection differs significantly from the scope of common law protection: Congress expanded the common law ... by granting an exclusive right in commerce to federal registrants in areas where there has been no offsetting use of the mark.... Congress intended the Lanham Act to afford nation-wide protection to federally-registered marks, and that once the certificate has issued, no person can acquire any additional rights superior to those obtained by the federal registrant. . .    Registration of a trademark, in addition to serving the interests of the registrant by providing constructive notice, serves the interests of other participants in the market place. Entrepreneurs, for example, who plan to promote and to sell a new product under a fanciful mark, should be able to rely on a search of the trademark registry and their own knowledge of whether the mark has been used so that what may be substantial expenditures of money promoting the mark will not be wasted. Consumers are also benefitted by the registration of national trademarks, because such registration helps to prevent confusion about the source of products sold under a trademark and to instill in consumers the confidence that inferior goods are not being passed off by use of a familiar trademark. In short, therefore, the benefits of prior registration under the Lanham Act are justified in light of the order such registration brings to the market place.

Natural Footwear Ltd. v. Hart, Schaffner & Marx, 760 F.2d 1383 (C.A.3 (N.J.), 1985).

Unregistered Trademarks

Unregistered trademarks are protected by law under more than just common law (case law) because various state statutes and federal statutes have adopted (codified) the concepts and terminology that were developed in case law. One applicable federal law for unregistered trademarks is 15 USC § 1125(a) of the Lanham Act: False designations of origin, false descriptions, and dilution forbidden (a) Civil action:

(1) Any person who, on or in connection with any goods or services, or any container for goods, uses in commerce any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which—

(A) is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection, or association of such person with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services, or commercial activities by another person, or

(B) in commercial advertising or promotion, misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin of his or her or another person’s goods, services, or commercial activities;

shall be liable in a civil action by any person who believes that he or she is or is likely to be damaged by such act.

Claims for trademark infringement for unregistered marks require findings that the unregistered marks owned by plaintiff are either inherently distinctive [rather than descriptive] or have acquired a secondary meaning and are likely to be confused with defendants' marks by members of the relevant public. Duncan Mcintosh Co. v. Newport Dunes Marina LLC, 324 F.Supp.2d 1083-1084 (C.D. Cal., 2004) quoting Int'l Jensen, 4 F.3d at 823; Vision Sports, 888 F.2d at 613; California Cooler, Inc. v. Loretto Winery, Ltd., 774 F.2d 1451, 1455 (9th Cir.1985). Without inherent distinctiveness or acquired distinctiveness through secondary meaning, an alleged common law trademark is not protected by common law. The same lack of common law protection holds true for trademarks that are geographically descriptive or geographically misdescriptive that have not acquired distinctiveness.

In addition, an unregistered mark must actually have been used as a trademark to be protected under trademark law. "[A] plaintiff must show that it has actually used the designation at issue as a trademark"; thus the designation or phrase must be used to "perform[] the trademark function of identifying the source of the merchandise to the customers." Microstrategy Incorp. v. Motorola, 245 F.3d at 341 (4th Cir., 2001) quoting Rock & Roll Hall of Fame v. Gentile Prods., 134 F.3d 749, 753 (6th Cir. 1998). See valid manner examples below or the web site Function As a Mark.com for examples on how a trademark should function.

Geographic Rights for Unregistered Marks are Limited

 A common law mark (unregistered mark) has geographically limited rights (prior use) against a subsequent user under the Tea Rose/Rectanus doctrine -- the first user of a common law trademark may not oust a later user's good faith use of an infringing mark in a market where the first user's products or services are not sold. Nat'l Ass'n Healthcare Comm. v. Cent. Arkansas Agency, 257 F.3d at 735 (8th Cir., 2001) quoting United Drug Co. v. Theodore Rectanus Co., 248 U.S. 90, 100-01 (1918); Hanover Star Milling Co. v. Metcalf, 240 U.S. 403, 415 (1916).

This prior use right may be enforced through an opposition or cancellation proceeding. See Published for Opposition see also Opposition Steps/Cancellation Steps for more information.

Secondary Meaning

Secondary meaning is when the consuming public has made a link between an alleged mark and the source of the mark. The assumption with secondary meaning or acquired distinctiveness is that there was some original reason that the mark did not qualify for protection such as not being inherently distinctive.

The factors considered in determining whether a descriptive mark (not inherently distinctive) has achieved secondary meaning include:

(1) whether actual purchasers of the product bearing the claimed trademark associate the trademark with the producer as evidenced by survey or direct consumer testimony;

(2) the degree and manner of advertising under the claimed trademark;

(3) the length and manner of use of the claimed trademark; and

(4) whether use of the claimed trademark has been exclusive.

Levi Strauss & Co. v. Blue Bell, Inc., 778 F.2d 1352, 1358 (9th Cir.1985).

Trademark owners can increase the link between their products or services and their claimed trademark in the minds of the consuming public by making Proprietary Claims (PC): taking steps to claim the rights. Proprietary claims may include: using a trademark in a valid manner* to indicate “brand” goods or services when using the trademark in commerce in a certain geographic area; giving notice of the trademark to the public by using notice statements such as using common law symbols for trademarks such as “TM” (for goods) or “SM” (for services) in an appropriate manner; making claims against infringers and maintaining exclusive use of the trademark; and associating value with the mark (building goodwill). Seeking federal trademark registration is also a type of Proprietary Claim moving the trademark outside of being protected by common law rights only.

*VALID MANNER: One example of a claimed trademark not being used in a valid manner is when the claimed mark is used as a trade name (noun) only. Another example would be when words are merely used to describe the qualities of a product and not used in a trademark sense to describe the source of the product. Another example is when the alleged trademark is not set apart in any way to show prominence with respect to other words, for instance a mission statement, like a slogan. A slogan can serve as a trademark, but if the words are mixed in with other words and not set off to describe the source of the product or service, it is just a slogan not a trademark. For specific examples, see Chart of Valid/Invalid Uses of Trademarks  or for cases relevant to valid use, see Function As A Mark.com.


To verify a potential trademark is strong, is available to use, and is ready to register, the process should be more than a direct hit federal search by a service unfamiliar with trademark law. To maximize the commercial strength and minimize the weaknesses of a trademark, we start with these five steps:

1) Verify Inherent Strength (this avoids merely descriptive, geographically descriptive, likelihood of confusion and other office actions),

2) Verify Right to Use, (this avoids likelihood of confusion refusal office actions and others)

3) Verify Right to Register, (this avoids many types of refusals including merely descriptive, deceptively misdescriptive, geographically descriptive and others that can often be predicted)

 4) Verify the potential mark (as currently used) Functions As A Mark, and (this avoids specimens refusals, trade name refusals, and others. The USPTO is looking for valid use not just any use of a mark.)

5) Verify that the Goods and Services ID is both the correct and the maximum claim that are user can make and verify that the Goods and Services ID meets USPTO requirements before filing. (This avoids office actions to correct incorrect IDs  which can slow down a registration. Incorrect IDs  may be corrected during the prosecution of a trademark if they do not materially alter the mark or the ID. Correcting problems before application saves time and money. Filing in a new class after an application has been submitted to cure a problem ID is the same price as a new application in that class.)

*We don’t stop here but this is a good start!

Call us at (651) 500-7590 for a Strong Trademark. A Strong Trademark is Not Just a tool to increase sales to customers–it is also easier to sell to your investors & licensees.

Federal USPTO Trademark Registration

There are many advantages of Federal Registration for trademarks on the Principal Register including:

Some of these advantages apply for marks on the Supplemental Register. See Comparison of Principal Register with Supplemental Register for more information.

Not Just Patents ® Legal Services can help protect your Intellectual Property Rights assets by representing your business in an opposition or cancellation proceeding. See Published for Opposition and Opposition Steps/Cancellation Steps for more information.

A business that monitors its valued trademarks may be able to stop a potential infringer as soon as the infringer starts using a conflicting mark or as soon as the potential infringer tries to register a conflicting mark. The business cost of sending a “cease and desist letter” that leads to an infringer filing an Express Abandonment or  agreeing to a licensing or consent agreement is much quicker and less costly than trying to oppose an infringer, cancel a registered mark or sue an infringer. Letting a potential infringer use your trademark weakens the inherent strength of your mark. “A strong trademark is one that is rarely used by parties other than the owner of the trademark, while a weak trademark is one that is often used by other parties. The more distinctive a trademark, the greater its strength.” Exxon Corporation v. Texas Motor Exchange of Houston, 628 F.2d 500, 504 (5th Cir.1980).

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Call 1-651-500-7590 or email WP@NJP.legal for Responses to Office Actions; File or Defend an Opposition or Cancellation; Trademark Searches and Applications; Send or Respond to Cease and Desist Letters.

For more information from Not Just Patents, see our other sites:      

Evolved Means, Method or Format-Is your trademark registration obsolete?

Trademark e Search    Strong Trademark     Enforcing Trade Names

Common Law Trademarks  Trademark Goodwill   Abandoned Trademarks

Chart of Patent vs. Trade Secret

Patent or Trademark Assignments

Trademark Disclaimers   Trademark Dilution     TSDR Status Descriptors

Oppose or Cancel? Examples of Disclaimers  Business Cease and Desist

Patent, Trademark & Copyright Inventory Forms

USPTO Search Method for Likelihood of Confusion

Verify a Trademark  Be First To File    How to Trademark Search

Are You a Content Provider-How to Pick an ID  Specimens: webpages

How to Keep A Trade Secret

Decrease Your Vulnerability to Cancellation

Using Slogans (Taglines), Model Numbers as Trademarks

Which format? When Should I  Use Standard Characters?

Opposition Pleadings    UDRP Elements    

Oppositions-The Underdog    Misc Changes to TTAB Rules 2017

How To Answer A Trademark Cease and Desist Letter

Trademark Integrity: Are your IP Assets Vulnerable?

Trademark Refusals    Does not Function as a Mark Refusals

Insurance Extension  Advantages of ®  ApplyTM.com

How to Respond to Office Actions  Final Refusal

What is a Compact Patent Prosecution?

Acceptable Specimen       Supplemental Register   $224 Statement of Use

How To Show Acquired Distinctiveness Under 2(f)

Trademark-Request for Reconsideration

Why Not Just Patents? Functional Trademarks   How to Trademark     

What Does ‘Use in Commerce’ Mean?    

Grounds for Opposition & Cancellation     Cease and Desist Letter

Trademark Incontestability  TTAB Manual (TBMP)

Valid/Invalid Use of Trademarks     Trademark Searching

TTAB/TBMP Discovery Conferences & Stipulations

TBMP 113 TTAB Document Service  TBMP 309 Standing

Examples and General Rules for Likelihood of Confusion

Examples of Refusals for Likelihood of Confusion   DuPont Factors

What are Dead or Abandoned Trademarks?

 Can I Use An Abandoned Trademark?

Color as Trade Dress  3D Marks as Trade Dress  

Can I Abandon a Trademark During An Opposition?

Differences between TEAS, TEAS RF and TEAS plus  

Extension of Time to Oppose?

Ornamental Refusal  Standard TTAB Protective Order

SCAM Letters Surname Refusal

What Does Published for Opposition Mean?

What to Discuss in the Discovery Conference

Descriptive Trademarks Trademark2e.com  

Likelihood of Confusion 2d  TMOG Trademark Tuesday

Acquired Distinctiveness  2(f) or 2(f) in part

Merely Descriptive Trademarks  

Merely Descriptive Refusals

ID of Goods and Services see also Headings (list) of International Trademark Classes

Register a Trademark-Step by Step  

Protect Business Goodwill Extension of Time to Oppose

Geographically Descriptive or Deceptive

Change of Address with the TTAB using ESTTA

Likelihood of confusion-Circuit Court tests

Pseudo Marks    How to Reply to Cease and Desist Letter

Not Just Patents Often Represents the Underdog

 Overcome Merely Descriptive Refusal   Overcome Likelihood Confusion

Protecting Trademark Rights (Common Law)

Steps in a Trademark Opposition Process   

Section 2(d) Refusals   FilingforTrademark.com

Zombie Trademark  

What is the Difference between Principal & Supplemental Register?

Typical Brand Name Refusals  What is a Family of Marks? What If Someone Files An Opposition Against My Trademark?

How to Respond Office Actions  

DIY Overcoming Descriptive Refusals

Trademark Steps Trademark Registration Answers TESS  

Trademark Searching Using TESS  Trademark Search Tips

Trademark Clearance Search   DIY Trademark Strategies

Published for Opposition     What is Discoverable in a TTAB Proceeding?

Counterclaims and Affirmative Defenses

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