To Search or To Sink: The Importance of Clearing Your Brand
So many times in my three decades of practice I've shaken my head at the perils a trademark owner can so easily avoid by searching and clearing a mark. The litigations! The unnecessary attorneys' fees! The time and resources lost! All because my client (or adversary) didn't conduct a proper trademark search.
Adopting a Trademark
So what's all the fuss about? Well, before adopting a trademark (that is, a brand name for goods or services) you should have an attorney commission a proper clearance search, review it, and provide you with a well-reasoned opinion as to the availability of the brand for "use" and "registration." (Yes, they are different things, as explained below.) I'm not talking about an Internet search or an online search of U.S. Trademark Office records, though both can be useful to make sure there aren't any easily found barriers to use or registration of a mark before a full search is commissioned.
I'm talking about a full clearance search done by a reputable vendor the attorney commissions to uncover all uses (registered and not) of the same or similar marks for the same or similar goods/services as you want to use your brand for. The resulting vendor's report sent to the attorney is typically anywhere from 300 pages up to 1000 pages. Then the (experienced trademark) attorney reviews it and lets you know in a detailed opinion if the mark is free for you to use and register without entangling you in the risk of a dispute/lawsuit. If it's not available, you pick another brand, and search again.
Using a Brand and Registering It
So what's the difference between freedom to use a brand and freedom to register it? In the U.S., "common law" trademark rights can exist based solely upon use (that is use of a trademark without registration). That's because consumers can associate a brand with a single source (the trademark owner/producer of goods/services) even if it's not registered. (It's different in other countries, and searches should be done in every country for which you want to use your brand.)
So it's possible that there's a barrier to use but not to registration, because a common law (unregistered) trademark is too similar to the brand you want to use, and is being used in connection with identical or related goods/services as your proposed brand. That's why you want clearance to both use and register a mark. (Registration is important because it provides you with nationwide rights in your brand; common law trademarks cover only the geographic territory where sales under the brand occur.)
So please clear your mark. It's pennies on the dollar compared to what you will spend in a dispute or (heaven forbid) litigation. Here's to happy searching!