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What are “Common Law” Trademark Rights?

Well, you acquire what are called “common law” trademark rights by properly using your trademark in connection with the advertising and sale of products or services.  If you’re selling products, this means using your trademark on product packaging, point-of-purchase displays, tags affixed to the products, or on the products themselves.  If you’re offering services, proper trademark use includes using your trademark on printed marketing materials, in radio and television commercials, and on websites and other Internet-based advertising.  Your common law trademark rights will last for as long as you continue to offer your products or services under your trademark.  Although the use of your trademark doesn’t have to be particularly substantial to acquire common law trademark rights, it does have to be a bona fide use and not just a token or one-time use.

Where Do I Have Common Law Rights?

Your common law trademark rights extend only to the geographic areas in which you’re actively marketing and selling your products or services.  So, for instance, if you only serve customers located in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, then you’ll only own trademark rights in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  This generally means a competing business that only serves residents of New York would be permitted to use an identical trademark for the same products or services and it not be considered an infringement.

Are Common Law Rights Enough to Protect a Trademark?

The biggest drawback to only having common law trademark rights is that other individuals and businesses can adopt identical or confusingly similar trademarks in other areas of the United States and acquire their own common law rights.  This can be especially problematic if you ever want to expand or franchise your business because you may be prohibited from selling your products or services in those parts of the country where others have obtained common law trademark rights.  Securing a US trademark registration issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) can help prevent this unfortunate situation from happening to you because it reserves the entire United States for your exclusive use (subject to anyone who might have acquired legitimate common law rights before you filed your trademark application).

Can I Acquire Common Law Rights?

One very important thing to remember is that you can only protect a trademark and legally acquire common law trademark rights if another person or business doesn’t already own a federal trademark registration for an identical or confusingly similar trademark.  If such a trademark registration exists, the use of your trademark would be in violation of the trademark owner’s federal rights and you risk being sued for trademark infringement.  This is true regardless of whether the owner of the trademark registration is actually doing business in the same part of the U.S. as you are.  This illustrates why it’s absolutely essential that you conduct a federal trademark search prior to adopting and using your trademark.

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