How Can You Protect Your Business Name?

You Might Have Less Name Protection Than You Think

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Image (c) Susan Ward/ Dave McLeod

Reader Question:

I know you have to register your business name with the province when you start a brick and mortar retail store. I want to start a dot-com retail store but I also want to protect my name so someone can't come along later and say that I can't have my dot-com name because they have a store in Dallas, Texas with the same name. I have heard of that happening.

Who should I register with?

How can I protect my name so no one can take it from me?

My Reply:

First, let me say that it’s very wise of you to be thinking about this issue; many small businesses don’t have the name protection they think they have and some business names are so popular that there’s literally a business of the same name in practically every province and state! (Look up the word “Acme” in your favorite search engine, for instance.)

Second, let me clear up any confusion you might have about business registration.

Business Names and Domain Names Aren't the Same Things

When you want to create a website, you need to register a domain name. If you think of the Internet as a city, the domain is your street address – your piece of real estate to build on as you wish.

When you are registering a domain name, you’re basically purchasing the right to use that property (usually by paying annual “rental” fees).

However, registering your domain is an entirely separate process from registering your business name.

Whether you purchase a dot.ca domain from CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority) or a dot.com, dot.biz or dot.whatever from some other domain registrar, you still have to register your business in Canada with the appropriate federal or provincial authority.

If you incorporate your business, you will have to register your business name with the federal government (if you choose federal incorporation), or with the provincial corporate registrar (if you choose provincial incorporation).

If you choose to structure your business as a sole proprietorship or as a partnership, you will have to register your business name with your provincial registrar.

So an online business, such as the one you propose, will have two different registration procedures to go through.

Now let’s look at the different levels of name protection these different registrations provide.

Business Registration and Name Protection

Sole proprietorships and partnerships provide the lowest level of name protection. When you register your new business as either of these types of business ownership, your business name is only protected in your province – and even then there may be lots of similar names in your own province. And there’s nothing to prevent someone in any other province or territory to have the exact same business name as yours.

Provincial incorporation adds very little name protection. There is a little bit more as compared to the sole proprietorship or partnership because of the corporate designation required in business names; Susan Ward Inc. is a different business name than Susan Ward Corp. (although this difference may not even register with a consumer).

However, your business name is still not protected in other provinces and territories.

There could be a Susan Ward Inc. in BC and another in Alberta, and if I was the owner of one of these companies, I could do nothing about it.

Federal incorporation gives your business a higher level of name protection, but only within Canada. If I incorporated my company Susan Ward Inc. federally, no other company in Canada could use that name. But federal incorporation is still no help if someone wants to use the name in Dallas, Texas (or any other country).

The highest level of business name protection is provided by trademarking your business’s name. Once you’ve registered your name as a trademark, you will have the exclusive right to use the trademark across Canada for 15 years and claim priority in registering the trademark in foreign countries.

Trademark Registration in Canada explains how to go about this.

And what level of name protection does the domain registration provide? The short answer is some.

When you buy a dot.com no one else can buy that name (until you stop paying for that domain name and it becomes available again). But that doesn’t mean that all the other domain suffixes automatically belong to you, too. When I register SusanWard.com, I don’t automatically also own SusanWard.ca or SusanWard.biz as well.

Because of this, some people try to give their dot.com additional name protection by buying up all the variations of their name if they can get them. So if my dot.com name was susansstuff.com, I would also try to buy susansstuff.ca, susansstuff.biz etc. You can see the problem here – there’s a whole lot more domain suffixes than there used to be so this could be a huge task.

And of course, it still won’t protect you against those trying to ride on your successful virtual coattails by registering similar names that are just a letter or two different, hoping to capitalize on web searchers’ poor spelling. (Someone registering SusanVard.com, for instance.) 

In short, if you have registered a domain name and keep your registration current, you can’t lose it – but there’s nothing to prevent other people from registering similar website names.