A collective membership mark differs greatly from a traditional trademark (or service mark). Collective membership marks are much rarer than trademarks and most individuals, businesses, and non-profit organizations will never have to worry too much about them. Having said that, they still serve a very important purpose in our society and receive the same protections from infringement and misappropriation as traditional trademarks. Before continuing, I encourage you to review my What is a Trademark? article, which I think will help you better understand the information presented in this article.
Common law trademark rights are an extremely important concept in trademark law. In the United States, owners of common law trademark rights have significant protections against others who may seek to use a confusingly similar trademark to advertise and sell related products or services. These rights can be enforced in a court of law and monetary damages may be awarded to a trademark owner whose common law rights were found to have been violated by someone else.
In the world of commerce, the ® registered trademark symbol (known as the “Circle R”) conveys a very important meaning. The registered trademark symbol signifies that a trademark or service mark has been federally registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). It’s regularly used by owners of registered trademarks to put the world on actual notice of their federal trademark rights and to deter others who may be considering adopting an identical or confusingly similar mark.
As a side note, just because you see the registered trademark symbol next to a trademark, don’t assume that the mark is actually federally registered. It’s very possible that the registration may have been cancelled, the mark was never registered to begin with, or the mark is merely the subject of a pending trademark application that has not yet matured into a registration. So, if you ever want to know for sure whether a particular trademark is registered, you’ll have to conduct a federal trademark search.
You’ve likely seen the “TM” trademark symbol used in combination with various trademarks. The “TM” trademark symbol is widely utilized by individuals, businesses, and organizations to alert the public of their claim of ownership in a particular mark. Of course, using a “TM” doesn’t necessarily mean that the user of the mark actually owns any common law trademark rights or federal trademark rights whatsoever. For example, if I was to start selling soda under the name “COCA-COLA™,” I’d be a dirty little infringer since I clearly cannot obtain any trademark rights in the famous COCA-COLA name.
Once a trademark is registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the owner of the trademark may use the “®” registered trademark symbol in place of the “TM” in order to provide notice to the world that the trademark is federally registered.
When prospective clients contact me about registering their trademarks, they often ask me whether they’re able to protect a trademark in the United States if they don’t get a US trademark registration. Oftentimes, these are new start-up businesses that want to protect a trademark but are on the fence as to whether they should spend the money on filing a trademark application if their trademarks already have a minimal amount of protection.