By Mark Kingsley-Williams, Director at Trade Mark Direct

The age of the internet and online retailing has made trade mark protection more crucial than ever for small to medium sized businesses.

With companies jostling online for prominence on Google and competing side by side on Ebay and Amazon it is no longer possible to share the same brand name as another company, even if they are at the opposite end of the country.

Until recently, a company in say Portsmouth called ‘Smiths Sweeps’ and a company in Cumbria called ‘Smiths Sweeps’ could happily coexist as they traded and advertised locally and never the twain may meet, but this is not the case today.

An internet searcher typing in ‘Smiths Sweeps’ will see both companies appear but will not know which is the company they are looking for.

Businesses, today, are a mouse click away from each other and it makes no difference that they are 330 miles apart.
If ‘Smiths Sweeps’ in Portsmouth decides to file for a trade mark and is successful its twin in Cumbria will be forced to change its name; stationary; vans; website; and so on.

A rebrand is to be avoided at all costs, as in addition to the thousands of pounds in costs that come with a rebrand, the most devastating loss is a company’s customer base and brand loyalty. Only years of trusted service builds a successful brand which can then be destroyed overnight.

Furthermore, for online businesses their website domain may already be entrenched within the search engines and any domain name change could be catastrophic to business.
Without a registered trade mark your competitors can almost always get away with abusing your company or brand name on their website, in search engine adverts or metatags and SEO (search engine optimisation).

A common problem is competitors using a URL similar to yours to divert traffic to their site from yours, and they may even trade mark your name and use it to stop you trading with it. It makes no difference that your company was first using it, or had registered the name at Companies House, or own the domain name.

What you need to know about trade marks
If you are a business and have not investigated whether there is already an existing trade mark on your name or someone operating under that name you are leaving yourself open to enormous risk which could mean losing your livelihood.

The lesson is, even for small businesses, you need to be aware of trade mark law in order to ensure that your company is fully protected.

Firstly, let me dispel some common myths - neither owning the domain website name nor having registered your company’s name at Companies House gives you trade mark protection.

Do your homework when you start a business and check that the business and domain name do not conflict with any other established businesses. If you accidentally choose a business or product name that is too similar to a competitor, they can accuse of you of violating their trademark and force you to change your business name.

Doing this work at the outset can save a considerable amount of time and money in not having to defend oppositions or even re-brand a business once a trade mark application has been made.

Christian Clothing Company were shocked to receive a call from another clothing company to inform them that they were infringing their trade mark by operating under a name that shared the first two words of their name. The company were forced to re-brand. Frazer Evett, its founder, said: “There was little else I could do, the other business owned the trade mark and my registration with Companies House and owning the URL offered no protection. I had heard about trade marking a logo, but never just words”. Re-branding cost the company about £28,000.

A trade mark registration can cost as little as £470 and ensures companies are fully protected from any infringement.

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