I want to start this article by sharing that this is a topic that is very near to my heart. I spent many years building a brand with my business clients. I had a catchy name and had used it in different ways for about 13 years. Unfortunately, I wasn't wise with that name and I didn't trademark it or register it in any way.
Someone who runs in similar circles as I do and who clearly had seen the name in use before trademarked it and snatched the name out from under me. While I probably could have battled this person over it, it would have cost thousands of dollars in legal fees and I am just a small business owner with a handful or two of clients. I learned a very valuable lesson from this experience and I hope to share what I've learned here and keep you from making the same mistake I did.
However, if you did what I did and failed to prepare and the worst has happened, I'll also have some advice for how you can move forward with your business without losing momentum.
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1. Protect your unique brand name / logo
If you have a unique brand name or logo, protect it. It is a simple thing for someone to snatch it out from under you and claim ownership of it. Your first step should be to register the name as a trademark. You can do this online through a number of services or hire an attorney.
If you choose to register online, I recommend you do some searches to make sure the name isn't already in use by someone else. Search Google, search the trademark database and search social media sites. If the name isn't in use, then you are ready to move forward and start the trademark process.
You'll have to fill out a ton of paperwork and common words can't be trademarked. For example, if the word “Biz” is part of your name, you can't just trademark the word “Biz” as thousands of businesses use that word. However, you can probably trademark a combination of words, such as “Biz Tipz for You”.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office will be in touch with any concerns over common words and will work out a solution with you that works for you and for others who might already be using a word like “biz”.
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2. Make a paper trail
As soon as you start your business, you should start a paper trail that shows you've been using that name since X date.
For example, you might register your domain name with a domain registrar, pay to have some business cards printed (keep the receipt) or even keep a copy of the form you used to file for a trademark.
A paper trail will show who was using the name first.
3. Watch for trademark violations
Once you've registered your business name, you'll want to monitor your local area, social media and search engines for violations and protect your trademark by notifying anyone using your trademarked name to cease and desist.
Protecting your trademark is vital because people can set up shop using a similar name and do business. This can ruin your reputation as the consumer thinks you are one and the same as the fly-by-night company.
What If Someone Stole Your Idea?
It happens every day. Someone has a great idea and another person who is unoriginal steals that idea.
Or, perhaps it is not quite that sinister and the two simply have similar ideas without realizing it.
If you failed to protect your business name, but have had a website running for years now, you may be in a state of panic trying to figure out what to do.
If you've received a note that you're using someone else's trademarked name and you didn't file the paperwork, you have one of two choices. You can either hire an attorney and try to fight it (there is a chance the courts may not find in your favor, too), or you can come up with a new brand name.
Here is a secret about people who like to steal the ideas of others that may make you feel a little better.
In the time it takes them to steal your idea, you've come up with 50 more unique ones. They simply can't keep up with a truly creative, hardworking person.
So, you came up with one great brand name…come up with a new one.
1. Keep your domain
Even though the other person has trademarked your name out from under you, you have spent years building your website traffic. Keep that domain name and point it to your new brand name. If you let it go, you risk the person who stole (either on purpose or accidentally) your name getting benefit from the traffic you've worked to build, because that person might purchase the domain.
Instead, keep it and point it to your new brand. Anyone who has saved the site in their favorites folder will still be able to find your site.
2. Trademark your new name before releasing it
Once you've come up with a fabulous new name, make sure you trademark it before you tell anyone about that name. This is a process that takes a minimum of 4-6 weeks to complete, so it may take you a while to get this in place. Resist any temptation to release the new name before you have that paper in hand stating the name is trademarked.
A domain name cannot be protected as a trademark merely because it is your address on the Internet. In addition to using the name in commerce, it must be used in a way that distinguishes your goods or services from those of others.– Andrew Ramstad, Romano Law (source)
3. Register your new domain
Go to your favorite domain registrar and register a new domain under your new brand name. Hopefully, you have already researched this and know that the name you've chosen has a good domain name available that matches. This can be a real challenge anymore as more and more domains have been snatched up.
If you are researching and stumble upon a domain name you love and it matches what you're thinking for your business name, you may want to just go ahead and purchase it for a year just in case this is the name you wind up going with. It is a small investment to ensure you have the domain name you want.
Tip: Namecheap and GoDaddy are the two domain registrars you can consider.
4. Announce the change
Once you've trademarked the new name, registered the domain, changed your logos and put everything place, it is time to let your readers know that you're changing your name and why. Be careful here, though. You don't want to point fingers at the other person. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of the change.
The person who stole the name I was using actually did me a huge favor. My male clients are not in love with the current name of my business and losing it forced me to look at little comments made by them here and there. I knew I needed to change focus.
When I first got into web design and marketing, I was working with mainly romance authors. The name was feminine and suited my clientele. However, over the years, I shifted to both authors (not just romance) and to small businesses. The name no longer fit.
I have received the trademark for my new name. I have the domain in hand. The logo was just completed and I'll be making the announcement about the change soon.
I know first-hand how aggravating and disappointing something like this can be. Most of all, I was disappointed in myself for not being the savvy business woman that I know I am.
However, if this happens to you, try to stay positive. Look at it as an opportunity to rebrand yourself into something bigger and better than ever before. You might just be pleasantly surprised at the amazing new brand you are able to come up with and how it benefits you and your customers.