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Definition: Any symbol, word or combination thereof used to represent or identify a product. A service mark means the same thing, but identifies a service.

Trademarks and service marks are applied to a manufacturer's or a seller's products and services to distinguish them in the marketplace--a valuable marketing tool, in some circumstances. A trademark or service mark prevents another person from offering a similar product or service confusingly similar to yours. If you don't register your trademark, you may be prohibited from using it by someone who has.

A logo can be a trademark, and many times they are used as such. But a trademark can be a separate symbol from the logo of the company. For instance, the familiar stagecoach symbol marks each GMC product, whether it's a Buick, Chevrolet or Pontiac. The stagecoach is GMC's trademark of quality and excellence but not its logo. On the other hand, "Ford" is that company's logo and trademark.

A trademark is a corporate symbol that contributes to the image the company is trying to build. It is a mark of quality and excellence that identifies that company as the manufacturer. Like the logo, a trademark can be a combination of color, typestyle and shape, or it can be just shape and color, like McDonald's golden arches.

There is also a legal side to the term "trademark." In the legal sense, a trademark is a form of protection of your corporate symbols from use by unauthorized parties. Trademark registration is filed through the Patent & Trademark Office of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

An important point to remember when filing for trademark protection is that a trademark is not a trade name. A trade name identifies the business. A trademark identifies the product. For instance, Entrepreneur Media is a trade name, while Entrepreneur is a trademark for the magazine.

There are generally four types of marks that can be federally registered:

  • Trademarks: used to identify products

  • Service marks: used to promote a service

  • Collective marks: used by organizations or associations to identify themselves

  • Certification marks: such as UL (Underwriters Laboratory) used to certify that a particular product has met the manufacturing standards of an impartial third-party regulatory group

Although the 1946 Lanham Trademark Act provides a limited amount of protection to companies upon the "first use" of a symbol, you should register a trademark as quickly as possible.

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