The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A trademark (Commonwealth English: trade mark) is conventionally a distinctive sign of some kind, whether that sign comprises a name, word, phrase, logo, symbol, design, picture, styling or a combination of one or more of these elements. A trademark is used by a business to identify itself and its products or services to consumers, and to set itself and its products or services apart from other businesses. A trademark is a type of intellectual property, and in particular, a type of industrial property.

The essential function of a trademark is to uniquely identify the commercial source or origin of products or services, such that a trademark, properly called, is used to 'indicate source' or act as a 'badge of origin'. The use of a trademark in this way is known as trademark use and a trademark owner seeks to enforce its rights or interests in a trademark by preventing unauthorised trademark use.

As any sign which is capable of performing the essential trademark function may qualify as a trademark, the trademark concept extends to include a range of non-conventional signs such as shapes (ie. three-dimensional trademarks), sounds, smells, moving images (eg. signs denoting movement, motion or animation), taste, and perhaps even texture. However, the extent to which such non-conventional trademarks can be protected or even recognised varies considerably from country to country[2] [3] [4], though for certain trademarks, use as nouns and, less commonly, verbs is common. For example, Adobe sent e-mails to many web authors using the term "photoshopped" telling them that they should only use the term "modified by Adobe® Photoshop® software." Xerox has also purchased print advertisements declaring that you cannot "xerox" a document, but you can copy it on a Xerox Brand copying machine. Such efforts may or may not be successful in preventing genericism in the long run, which depends less on the mark owner's efforts and more on how the public actually perceives and uses the mark. In fact, legally it is more important that the trademark holder visibly and actively seems to attempt to prevent its trademark from becoming generic, regardless of real success.

One principle of trademark law in various jurisdictions in Europe is that of 'wrongful threats', which is designed to prevent large corporations from 'bullying' smaller companies. Where one person makes a threat to sue another for trade mark infringement, without a genuine basis or intent to carry out that threat, the threat itself becomes a basis for legal action. This power is used quite frequently; in addition to the obvious cases where the person threatening never had a trade mark it catches out foreign corporations who have a trade mark in their home jurisdiction but not in the country concerned and companies who have a trade mark which has lapsed or, if the mark is not strong enough for dilution protection, is not for the goods/services concerned. The final group who get caught by this provision are those claimants/plaintiffs who sue, and find that the court agrees with a defendant who claims that the mark is invalid for some reason (such as non-use). In that case the mark was never valid, and thus all threats to sue on it were groundless—the defendant can walk away with damages from the claimant.


Comparison with patents, designs and copyright

While trademark law seeks to protect indications of the commercial source of products or services, patent law generally seeks to protect new and useful inventions, and registered designs law generally seeks to protect the look or appearance of a manufactured article. Trademarks, patents and designs collectively form a subset of intellectual property known as industrial property, because they are often created and used in an industrial or commercial context.

By comparison, copyright law generally seeks to protect original literary, artistic and other creative works.

Although intellectual property laws such as these are theoretically distinct, more than one type may afford protection to the same article. For example, the particular design of a bottle may qualify for copyright protection as a nonutilitarian [sculpture], or for trademark protection based on its shape, or the 'trade dress' appearance of the bottle as a whole may be protectable. Titles and character names from books or movies may also be protectable as trademarks while the works from which they are drawn may qualify for copyright protection as a whole.

Drawing these distinctions is necessary but often challenging for the courts and lawyers, especially in jurisdictions such as the United States, where patents and copyrights will eventually expire into the public domain but trademarks do not. Unlike patents and copyrights, which in theory are granted for one-off fixed terms, trademarks remain valid as long as the owner actively uses and defends them and maintains their registrations with the applicable jurisdiction's trade marks office. This often involves payment of a periodic renewal fee.

As a trademark must be used in order to maintain rights in relation to that mark, a trademark can be 'abandoned' or its registration can be cancelled or revoked if the mark is not continuously used. By comparison, patents and copyrights cannot be 'abandoned' and a patent holder or copyright owner can generally enforce their rights without taking any particular action to maintain the patent or copyright. Additionally, patent holders and copyright owners may not necessarily need to actively police their rights. However, a failure to bring a timely infringement suit or action against a known infringer may give the defendant a defense of implied consent or estoppel when suit is finally brought.

Trademarks and Domain Names

The advent of the Domain Name System has led to attempts by trademark holders to enforce their rights over domain names that are similar or identical to their existing trademarks, particularly by seeking control over the domain names at issue. As with dilution protection, enforcing trademark rights over domain name owners involves protecting a trademark outside the obvious context of its consumer market, because domain names are global and not limited by goods or service.

This conflict was more easily resolved when the domain name user actually used his website to compete with the trademark owner. Cybersquatting, however, involves no such competition, but instead an unlicensed user registering the trademark as a domain name in order to pressure a payoff (or other benefit) from the lawful mark owner. Typosquatters—those registering common misspellings of trademarks as domain names—have also been targeted successfully in trademark infringement suits.

This clash of the new technology with preexisting trademark rights resulted in several high profile decisions as the courts of many countries tried to coherently address the issue (and not always successfully) within the framework of existing trademark law. As the website itself was not the product being purchased, there was no actual consumer confusion, and so initial interest confusion was a concept applied instead. Infringing domain names were analogized to a sign identifying one store but falsely placed in front of another, in the hopes that customers will in the end not care that they were duped or will at least give up on trying to reach the right store.

Most courts particularly frowned on cybersquatting, and found that it was itself a sufficiently commercial use (i.e., "trafficking" in trademarks) to reach into the area of trademark infringement. Most jurisdictions have since amended their trademark laws to address domain names specifically, and to provide explicit remedies against cybersquatters.

This international legal change has also led to the creation of ICANN Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy and other dispute policies for specific countries (such as Nominet UK's DRS) which attempt to streamline the process of resolving who should own a domain name (without dealing with other infringement issues such as damages). This is particularly desirable to trademark owners when the domain name registrant may be in another country or even anonymous.

Registrants of domain names also sometimes wish to register the domain names themselves (e.g., "XYZ.COM") as trademarks for perceived advantages, such as an extra bulwark against their domain being hijacked, and to avail themselves of such remedies as confusion or passing off against other domain holders with confusingly similar or intentionally misspelled domain names.

As with other trademarks, the domain name will not be subject to registration unless the proposed mark is actually used to identify the registrant's goods or services to the public, rather than simply being the location on the Internet where the applicant's web site appears. is a prime example of a protected trademark for a domain name central to the public's identification of the company and its products.

Terms which are not protectable by themselves, such as a generic term or a merely descriptive term that has not acquired secondary meaning, do not become registrable when a Top-Level Domain Name (e.g. dot-COM) is appended to it. Examples of such domain names ineligible for trademark protection would be "SOFT.COM" (merely descriptive when applied to a product such as facial tissue), or "BANK.COM" (generic for banking services).

International trade mark laws

It is important to note that although there are systems which facilitate the filing, registration or enforcement of trade mark rights in more than one jurisdiction on a regional or global basis (eg. the Madrid and CTM systems, see further below), it is currently not possible to file and obtain a single trade mark registration which will automatically apply around the world. Trade mark laws are territorial in nature and generally apply only in the applicable country or jurisdiction, a quality which is sometimes referred to as ‘territoriality’.

Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights

The inherent limitations of the territorial application of trade mark laws have been mitigated by various intellectual property treaties. One such treaty is the WTO (formerly GATT) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights ('TRIPs'). Amongst other things, TRIPs generally requires that the trade mark laws of member jurisdictions are compatible with each other, a quality which is known as ‘harmonisation’. For example, Article 15(1) of TRIPs provides a definition for ‘sign’ which is used as or forms part of the definition of a 'trade mark' contained in the trade mark legislation of many jurisdictions around the world.

The Madrid system for the international registration of marks

Main article: Madrid system

Foremost amongst the systems which facilitate registration of trade marks in multiple jurisdictions is the 'Madrid system', which provides a centrally administered system of obtaining a bundle of single jurisdiction trade mark registrations based on an ‘international registration’.

In basic terms, the primary advantage of the Madrid system is that it allows a trademark owner to obtain trademark protection in any or all member states by filing one application in one jurisdiction with one set of fees, and make any changes (eg. changes of name or address) and renew registration across all applicable jurisdictions through a single administrative process.

Community Trade Mark system

Main article: Community Trade Mark

The Community Trade Mark system is the supranational trade mark system which applies in the European Union, whereby registration of a trade mark with the Office of Harmonisation in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (i.e.. OHIM, the trade marks office of the European Union), leads to a registration which is effective throughout the EU as a whole. The CTM system is therefore said to be unitary in character, in that a CTM registration applies indivisibly across all European Union member states. However, the CTM system did not replace the national trade mark registration systems; the CTM system and the national systems continue to operate in parallel to each other. See also European Union trade mark law .

Other systems

Other supranational trade mark systems include the system in operation in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, i.e.. Benelux.

Trade mark law in other countries

For the trade mark law which applies in a selection of other countries and jurisdictions, please refer to the following articles.

See also

  • Service marks
  • Trademark dilution
  • Trademark law
  • Trade dress
  • Unregistered trade marks —some jurisdictions offer protection for the business reputation or 'goodwill' which attaches to unregistered trade marks. In common law jurisdictions unregistered trade mark rights may be protected under the tort of passing off. Passing off may provide a remedy in a scenario where a business has been trading under an unregistered trade mark for many years, and a rival business starts using the same or a similar mark.
  • Well known trade marks

Non-standard trade marks

Non-conventional trademarks


Related concepts

External links

Trade Mark Offices

See also intellectual property organizations

Trade mark databases / searches

Trade mark organisations

Trade mark resources

Miscellaneous resources

Brand scorecards

Guidelines on the use of trademarks

Branding & Design

Corporate identity



  1. The styling of 'trademark' as a single word is predominantly used in the United States, while the two word styling 'trade mark' is used in many other countries around the world, including the European Union and Commonwealth jurisdictions such as Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
  2. In the European Union the smell of cut grass has been registered for tennis balls (registration no. 428870). However, as of December 2004 this is the only registration for a smell trade mark in the EU. In the United States, the sound of the roar of a lion has been registered for motion pictures

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy