Protecting a Common Law Trademark in the US for Free

Protecting a Common Law Trademark in the US for Free

  • 27 April, 2024
  • Nyall Engfield

Protecting a Common Law Trademark in the US for Free

In the world of intellectual property, trademarks play a crucial role in distinguishing the goods and services of one business from another. While registering a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides significant advantages, many businesses, especially small entrepreneurs and startups, may find the costs associated with federal registration prohibitive. Fortunately, there is a way to establish and protect a common law trademark without incurring substantial expenses – and that's through free trademark protection.

Common Law Trademark Protection

A common law trademark refers to the rights acquired through the actual use of a mark in commerce, rather than through registration with a government agency. These rights are limited to the geographic area where the mark is used and to the specific goods or services for which the mark is employed. In the United States, common law trademark rights are recognized and enforced at the state level.

Establishing a Common Law Trademark for Free

To establish a common law trademark for free, you need to take the following steps:

  1. Choose a Distinctive Mark: Select a mark that is unique, memorable, and not descriptive of your goods or services. Avoid using generic terms or phrases that are commonly used in your industry.
  2. Use the Mark in Commerce: Start using the mark in connection with your goods or services. This can include displaying the mark on your products, packaging, advertising materials, website, and business documents.
  3. Use the Proper Trademark Designations: While not legally required, it is advisable to use the appropriate trademark designations, such as ™ (for an unregistered trademark) or ℠ (for an unregistered service mark), to put others on notice that you claim rights in the mark.
  4. Maintain Consistent Use: Use the mark consistently in the same stylized form, including any specific fonts, colors, or designs. Consistency helps establish consumer recognition and strengthens your common law trademark rights.
  5. Document Your Use: Keep detailed records of when and where you first used the mark in commerce, as well as examples of its use on products, advertising materials, and other business documents. This documentation can be invaluable in establishing your priority of use if a dispute arises.

Advantages of a Common Law Trademark

While a common law trademark may not provide the same level of protection as a federally registered trademark, it still offers several advantages:

  1. Immediate Protection: By using the mark in commerce, you can establish common law trademark rights immediately, without the need for registration or filing fees.
  2. Cost-Effective: Establishing and maintaining a common law trademark is generally less expensive than pursuing federal registration, which can involve substantial legal fees and government filing costs.
  3. Territorial Rights: Within the geographic area where the mark is used and recognized, you can enforce your common law trademark rights against others who attempt to use a confusingly similar mark.
  4. Potential Registration Basis: If you decide to pursue federal registration in the future, your common law trademark use can serve as the basis for your application and help establish your priority date.

Limitations of a Common Law Trademark

While a common law trademark offers protection, it is essential to understand its limitations:

  1. Geographic Limitations: Your common law trademark rights are limited to the geographic area where the mark is used and recognized. This can be a significant disadvantage for businesses with national or international aspirations.
  2. Limited Legal Remedies: Without federal registration, you may have limited legal remedies against infringers, particularly in cases involving interstate commerce or importation of infringing goods.
  3. Difficulty in Preventing Registration by Others: It can be challenging to prevent others from registering a similar mark with the USPTO, as the registration process does not adequately consider common law trademark rights.
  4. Potential for Conflicts: As common law trademark rights are territorial, there is a higher risk of inadvertent conflicts with other businesses using similar marks in different geographic areas.

Protecting Your Common Law Trademark for Free

While establishing a common law trademark for free is relatively straightforward, protecting and enforcing your rights can be more challenging. Here are some tips to help you protect your free trademark:

  1. Monitor for Infringement: Regularly search for similar marks being used in your geographic area and industry. This can help you identify potential infringers and take appropriate action.
  2. Send Cease and Desist Letters: If you discover someone using a confusingly similar mark, send a formal cease and desist letter asserting your common law trademark rights and demanding that they stop using the mark.
  3. Consider Negotiation and Mediation: In some cases, negotiating with the infringer or engaging in mediation can be a cost-effective way to resolve disputes without resorting to litigation.
  4. Pursue Legal Action: If necessary, you may need to file a trademark infringement lawsuit in state court to protect your common law trademark rights. However, this can be expensive and time-consuming, so it should be a last resort.
  5. Explore Federal Registration: While it involves costs, pursuing federal registration with the USPTO can provide broader protection and stronger legal remedies against infringers.


Establishing and protecting a common law trademark for free can be an attractive option for small businesses and entrepreneurs with limited resources. By following the proper steps and maintaining consistent use, you can establish valuable trademark rights without incurring substantial costs. However, it is essential to understand the limitations of common law trademark protection and be prepared to take appropriate measures to safeguard your rights, including monitoring for infringement, sending cease and desist letters, and exploring legal action when necessary. Ultimately, while a free trademark may seem appealing, pursuing federal registration can provide stronger and broader protection for your valuable intellectual property.

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published