from Sharon McLeod
Some of you have heard my discourse about protecting trademarks. You may have assumed that, as a technical
writer, I have to do that. Well, guess what? It’s something we all share as employees. You may wonder why you
share in this, and you may wonder, too, what all the trademark fuss is about.
I’ve written down what I remember from a Trademark Training class at a company that I took several years ago to
provide a more complete picture. It’s not the most recent trademark information, to be sure, but it still provides a
useful overview. And, naturally, you should consult your own company’s attorneys as I am not qualified to provide
legal advice in this or any other area.
What is a trademark?
In short, a trademark is “a promise of identity, source, and quality.” A trademark can be words or pictures (logos).
When a potential customer sees a familiar trademark, they expect a product of a certain kind and quality.
Why use trademarks?
Companies have a limited amount of time to “hook” a customer to their product. Using a trademark helps a
customer recognize the product quickly. As an example, what do you think of when you see gold-colored arches? A
swoosh on shoes or clothing? You probably already know what the associated product is.
In our industry, the amount of time required to “hook” the customer differs, depending on the customer type:
Retail buyers 20 minutes
Time for message
Note: This illustration may not precisely reflect your situation. It should, however, provide a “broad stroke”
Some trademarks are easier to protect than others. And it’s all in the name as this illustration suggests:
Made up word (for
Protectability example, “Pentium”)
Dictionary word in an arbitrary or
Arbitrary unrelated setting (for example,
“Apple” for PCs; “Java” for software)
Suggest an attribute; requires an additional
cognitive leap (for example, “SatisFAXtion”)
Describes the thing; generally not able to serve
as a TM (for example, Intel Internet Phone)
Name of the thing itself; not
able to serve as a trademark.
Expense of developing increases
Why protect a trademark?
Companies spend a lot of money to develop trademarks. When customers can quickly identify a product via a
trademark, the theory is that more sales occur and those sales occur faster. The trademark can be “lent” to other
complementary products, aiding in the sales of those products as well.
Things can go awry, however. For example:
• Other companies can use your trademark to sell their product, leveraging on the trademark recognition.
Needless to say, this is frowned upon.
• The trademark can become part of the common language, thus losing its right and ability to represent a specific
product. “Kleenex” is probably the best known of these terms.
When things go awry, a company can end up in court trying to save their trademark. Their success in court depends
on how well a trademark has been protected. Courts can look at a variety of materials to determine the extent of
protection, including the product and even the company’s internal email.
Sure, it’s only when a trademark ends up in court that protection becomes an issue. However, if protecting a
trademark is fairly simple, you can make protecting it a simple part of your daily routine.
How do I protect a trademark?
To protect a trademark, follow these three “rules”:
1. Always use a trademark as an adjective accompanied by the appropriate noun. Generally, the noun should be
• Join a trademark to other words, symbols, or numbers, either as a single word or with a hyphen.
• Abbreviate a trademark.
• Pluralize a trademark.
2. Always use the proper spelling and the proper trademark symbol (™ or ®) when needed. Use superscript or
subscript when available; otherwise use parentheses: ( TM ) or ( R ).
3. Always use trademarks and logos only in the ways they were intended: to identify the source of specific
products as determined by the owner.
How do I protect my company’s trademarks?
Let’s take a closer look at the above rules, and apply them specifically to a hypothetical software product we’ll call
Not just any noun can follow a trademarked term; the noun must be an “appropriate” noun. In most companies,
someone or some department owns the transforming of everyday nouns into ones blessed as appropriate for a
particular trademark. Here is a list of nouns that might be appropriate for the SoftSomething trademark:
You should use nouns only from your product’s approved list. If you think the list is either incomplete or overly
ambitious, bring it up as an issue. Generally, a list can evolve with product needs.
The trademark symbol
Trademarks not yet registered with the Patent and Trademark office are identified with the “™” symbol. After the
mark is registered, it is identified with the “®” symbol. When the delivery mechanism doesn’t support superscript or
subscript, use “( R )”.
You should use this symbol in the first appearance of the term in any body of work. You don’t need to use it
thereafter. If the work contains both headings and body text, the symbol should appear in the first occurrence of
each. When the term occurs in electronic media, such as a software GUI, the symbol should also appear in the first
occurrence. Determining the first occurrence in electronic media is sometimes a gray area as some screens can be
printed, thus constituting a separate “body” of work. Use your best judgment.
Referring to trademarks from other companies
When using trademarks owned by other companies, apply the same rules, except use an asterisk (*) or cross (†)
rather than a trademark symbol (™ or ®). Ensure that a general acknowledgment line such as “other brands and
names are the property of their respective owners” exists somewhere in the work (check with your company’s legal
department to determine exact wording). This approach not only recognizes other companies’ trademarked terms, it
avoids the constant updating required to determine trademark status (“™” or “®”).
This describes SoftSomething® software. You use This describes SoftSomething software. You use
SoftSomething software to make applications that. . . SoftSomething software to make applications that. . .
With SoftSomething software, you can create. . . With SoftSomething, you can create. . .
SoftSomething software provides. . . SoftSomething provides. . .
You must first start the SoftSomething software You must first start SoftSomething.