When you register a company name, your name is not automatically protected by trade mark law. Similarly, if you have a trademarked brand name, you may not necessarily be able to register the brand as a limited company name. So what are trade marks, and how can you protect your company name?
Trade marks vs. limited company names
There is a common misconception that you can protect your business name from being used by others simply by registering the name at Companies House.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. By forming a new company at Companies House, you are only preventing any other business from registering the same, or a very similar, company name to yours. Unless your company (or brand) name are registered trade marks, they may be used by other businesses for marketing or other purposes.
If you want to protect a trade mark (such as your company name), you will need to register the mark with the Intellectual Property Office (IPO).
What is a trade mark?
A trade mark can be a brand name, company name, logo or a combination of both. A trade mark (brand) distinguishes your goods or services from those provided by other businesses.
To be eligible for registration, a trade mark must be distinctive. For example, ‘Burthogg’ (an invented word) is eligible, as is ‘Burthogg Windows’ (the combination of the invented and common word together). However, ‘Best Windows’ is not eligible as both words are commonly used.
Domain names are in a similar legal situation to company names when it comes to legal protection. Owning a domain name doesn’t necessarily mean you can trademark it – and owning a brand trade mark doesn’t necessarily mean you have automatic rights to own the domain name.
If you register a trade mark, you have exclusive rights to the brand in the UK. This will put off competitors from attempting to use your brand for their own purposes, and makes it easier for the trade mark owner to take legal action should trade mark infringement have taken place.
You can still take action to protect an unregistered brand, if you can prove it is yours and you have been harmed by the alleged infringement – it is just much easier to deal with if you have registered the brand with the IPO.
You can find out if a trade mark has already been registered using the IPO search engine.
Once you have applied to register a trade mark, the IPO estimates that the whole process will take between 4 and 6 months, assuming no objections have been made.
Before applying, you will need to check that no similar brands have already been registered, find out which of the 45 classes of products and services your proposed mark belongs to, then submit your application with a fee (from £170 upwards). Once the application has been examined, third parties will have a limited time to post any objections. Assuming no objections are raised, your mark will become registered.
Read the IPO website (now housed within the GOV.UK network) for very accessible guides to trade marks, and how to apply to protect your company name.