I've only done this once, but, it was easier than expected. You don't need to pay a service hundreds of dollars to do this.
It costs $325 for the one trademark, but the costs can rise if your mark is used in different contexts. If you use the online forms and are well-prepared, you can save some money and get it done for $275.
This article is intended for ultra-small-time operators and microbusinesses that have more ideas than money, experience, or connections (or attorneys). You can protect yourself from the outright theft that's likely to happen if you're a "nobody".
Do You Need to Register the Trademark?
No. Your use of a name for trade is protected, inherently, in the US. Lawyers and websites say you should, but, legally, you're protected once you start using a name in conjunction with a specific product or service. Always document the first use, with photographs, web postings, etc. Also, use the "TM" trademark symbol with the name: Riceball.com™. You can type this ™, in HTML. You can also use Character Map (in Windows) or Key Caps (in Mac) to find the ™ symbol. You can use the trademark with the ™ symbol before you start selling something under the trademark (but I think you must start selling in a year).
It's probably more important to spend all the initial money on the project or product, to see if you even want to do it long-term.
I don't know if domain names are considered a way to establish a trademark.
According to the Domain Names and Trademarks FAQ on nolo.com, the answer is "no" if you have a generic domain, like dictionary.com.
On the other hand, if your business is named HalCom and you registered halcom.com, it might be enough evidence in case someone else come along and does business as HalCom. You can say "I started it first, here's proof." However, to my untrained mind, it seems like flimsy evidence at best, because there's a lot of domain names that are being "squatted" and it's hard to show it was really being used. Get a "DBA" or register an LLC instead.
Doing Business As
If you want to be cheap, file a Doing Business As (DBA). It's $12 (LA County, 2008) plus the cost of placing a DBA ad - a "Fictitious Business Name Statement." I think that's around $40, but more in better papers.
Los Angeles folks can do this in Norwalk, CA at the LA County Registrar's Office. Check your county's website for your local details, prices, etc. When you get there, some people will be offering to help you file it and place an ad in their paper. These are hucksters and pretend to be government workers, but they are just salespeople for these papers. They'll overcharge you. Don't fall for it. There are plenty of underworked government workers inside willing to assist.
Before you go, you should do a search for the business name. The search is on the Registrar's website. This is the exact same search that the clerk can do for you - there are also self-serve terminals at the office, so you can search there too.
If this DBA doesn't sound like enough - or if you're going to do some interstate trade, you might want to register your trade mark, for the authority it carries. In the long-run, it might save you hassles. Besides, if someone else is going to start a business, and they do the trademark search, your name will turn up; they will choose a different name, and everyone is saved a lot of heartache.
Register Online, Save $
The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is at http://www.uspto.gov/.
Their trademark registration system is called TEAS. There's also a search system called TESS, which you use to search for existing trademarks to make sure you aren't already infringing on someone else's trademark.
Their online system works well, and you can go through the forms for practice, without paying. (Unlike commercial sites, government sites make it kind of difficult to pay, so don't worry about accidentally being charged.)
Before you dive in, there are some basic concepts that, if you know them, will make the process easier.
Words and Appearance
You can trademark the name of your company or product, or the way the name is presented, but not both at the same time. For example, let's consider IBM, their logo, and their name. (I won't display it here. Look at apple.com.)
They probably applied for several different trademark protections. First is the name "IBM". They've obviously registered "IBM". They probably registered "International Business Machines" as well, because that's their full name.
Additionally, they've probably registered the appearance of the logo, with the specific lettering, and the white stripes, as well as the blue color. The following logo might be considered an infringement on their trademark:
(yeah, this is an allusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
If IBM had a logo in addition to their well-known one, they'd have to trademark that as well. This could be something artistic like Apple's logo, or something I'd consider less artistic, like AT&T's blue planet logo and that trendy typeface. +
The basic rule is, you have to register the words and the appearance separately.
Classes of Trademarks
A "class" is a description of a range of types of product, service, or other sellable thing that can be trademarked. The term "class" is meant to be like "classification", not like "social class" or "classroom." For example, IBM sells computers (they still sell big ones). They also sell computer services -- if you have enough money, you can hire someone from IBM to come over and write software for you. These are two different classes of trademarks.
Here's another example. Chanel makes perfumes. Chanel also makes dresses. Perfumes are classified under "cosmetics", while dresses are classified under "clothing".
If you sell more than one class of product, you need to register a trademark for each class of product.
Registering for more than one class will cost more money.
You should do it, though. There was a record company called Apple Corps. They put out the Beatles records. There have been a series of lawsuits between Apple Corp and Apple Computer, as detailed in a Wikipedia article. (Then again, maybe it makes sense to let another company with your trademark get big, so you can sue them.)
If you screw up your application, you'll have to appeal it. This costs money. So, practice on the website over and over until you get it right. Make sure your trademark doesn't conflict with another one.
Here's a link to their site.
Cultural Aspects of Trademark
In the 1960s immigration laws changed, and many middle class ethnic Chinese people started moving into California, creating suburban Chinatowns, and I lived in one of these areas. One of the businesses that was created was called "AFC", and they used a logo that looked almost like "JFC" a competing business that had been established for a couple decades longer (and had roots back to the early 1900s). See: JFC and AFC. The logos are so similar.
I was surprised. The name and logo were designed to look the same. They were engaged in exactly the same business: distributing Asian foods. Not only that, but today, they are located on the same street. Wow! But they don't seem to have sued each other. I found this culturally weird. My cultural expectation is that a business is always trying to be unique - an individual identity in the market - or they are trying to be generic and blend into the market. Creating a name and logo to emulate another established identity seemed wrong, and a little creepy, like a stalker.
Over the years, I've seen a lot of this in Chinese trademarks. You go to the store, and there are multiple products with different brand names, but similar packaging artwork, logos, and even package shapes. There are business names that would violate trademark laws, were it not for the fact that they are in different classes. For example, "NBC Seafood". The business is aware there is an "NBC" tv network -- that was the point, "NBC" is a quality trademark, and the intent was to aspire to the existing trademark.
There are certain to be other cultural surprises out there, so, be aware and open-minded to dealing with trademark infringement.
More ArticlesHow to Register Trademarks by Stephan Schneider How to Register a Trademark by Kelly Spors Trademark Filing by Erik J. Heels.