Credit: Illustration: Robert Neubecker

Think your company's name is unique? It may or may not be. But right now, if you keyed “Best Roofing” into Google, 70,400 items would turn up. How about “Quality Home Improvement”? In that case, 62,300 items would show on your computer screen. Even “Tri-State Home Improvement” yields some 9,700 search results.

Operating under a generic name may not matter, unless a competitor with the same name comes into your market — a situation bound to cause confusion. So who owns the name? Whoever trademarks it.

SMART INVESTMENT Marjory Stewart, an intellectual and business law attorney in Milwaukee, points out that although a federal trademark isn't required to operate a business, it's a wise investment. You do have common-law rights — which are quite limited — simply by using a name in association with services or goods, Stewart explains.

To assert trademark rights against another company or person, however, you must have a federal trademark. “By applying for and getting a federal trademark, you have greater security,” she says. “You can stop someone from using the same name or a confusingly similar one [in offering] the same goods and services.”

If you're setting up a company, the same advice applies. “Business owners and attorneys unfamiliar with trademark law often misjudge the importance of a comprehensive name search prior to choosing a name,” says attorney Mark A. Wright, a director of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, P.A., in Manchester, N.H., in an article on the law firm's Web site,

GETTING TRADE MARKED So how do you go about getting your company's name trademarked?

It might be wise to do some homework before you have a trademark attorney file. First, check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's TESS (Trademark Electronic Search System) online database to see whether the name you want to use is already trademarked. Additional sources to reference include directories such as Dun's Regional Business Directory, Sweet's Catalog, and The Advertising Red Books, plus trade magazines, local and regional Yellow Pages, and the Internet.

Not only is trademarking a smart legal move, Stewart says, “it's a good investment to protect and grow the brand.” And, if you ever plan to sell your company, having the name trademarked and having brand recognition — as opposed to having operated under four or five different names or being known as “the guy in the red pickup truck” — will help you get a higher price, she says.

If the application is done well, the total cost could be less than $1,000. “That's money well-spent,” Stewart says.

—Diane Kittower is a freelance writer in Rockville, Md.