Trademarks and Service Marks - What's the Difference?

Registered trademark symbol
Trademarks and Service Marks - What's the Difference?. Ivan Bajic / Getty Images

Most businesses have some kind of identification that makes their business stand out, both for advertising purposes and for general business purposes. A business that creates such an identifier, with a name and logo, is creating a trademark or service mark.

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is specifically a creation to identify a business product. A trademark can be any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination which is used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods of one company from those of others.

In short, a trademark is a brand name. For example, a product which cleans windows might have "sparklebrite" and a sparkler as its trademark. The trademark may or may not include a logo (a graphic). 

Trademarks are often confused with service marks, which identify a company's services.

What is a Service Mark?

Service marks are a subset of trademarks. A service mark is the same type of device as a trademark, but service marks distinguish the services of one company from those of another provider. Service marks are often slogans. For example, the service mark of a plumber might be "The Leak Fixers" with or without a distinctive logo. 

Service marks are sometimes confusing. For example, is McDonald's a service or a product? McDonald's the company is a service. Within that service - providing fast food - the company may have many products that are also trademarked. The  Big Mac® is a trademarked product.

 

Do I Have to Register a Trademark or Service Mark? 

Intellectual property, sometimes abbreviated as "IP," is handled in the same way as other types of property, except that these assets must be registered somehow so it's clear who owns them, and to prevent others from using this property without permission or payment.

You can use a trademark or service mark without registering it. But registering it protects it from issues if someone tries to use your mark or uses a similar mark. 

How Do I Register a Trademark or Service Mark? 

Trademarks and service marks are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. You can do the registration process yourself but it's complicated. You may go through the entire process only to find your application rejected because of a minor error. It's best to find an intellectual property attorney who can help you through the process. 

Trademarks and Service Marks as Intellectual Property

Trademarks and service marks are part of a subset of business assets called intellectual property, It's property because it has value and is owned by the company. Intellectual property is considered intangible assets because, unlike a company car or a machine or a desk, these assets have no material substance.

What is the difference between "TM" and "SM" and ®?"

The TM and SM designations are placed with trademarks and service marks to show that someone owns them. The "R" symbol designates a trademark or service mark that has been registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

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