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Breaking down the trademark symbols

You’ve probably seen them a million times – a superscript TM or SM or the letter R in a circle – ®. But do you actually know why they are used, or the difference between them? Or more importantly, when to use them? Well, let me help you out.

The TM and SM: The little TM (trademark) or SM (service mark) designation is used to alert the public that you are claiming proprietary trademark rights in a particular mark. You are free to use these symbols whether you have filed a trademark application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or not.

Takeaway: Using the TM or SM symbol is not regulated by law and doesn’t offer you legal protection. The primary purpose of these symbols is to put others on notice of your claim of rights in your mark.

The Letter R in a Circle: Unlike the TM and SM symbols, the federal registration symbol, ® may only be used on marks that have actually been registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and only for the goods or services listed in the federal registration. It may not be used while your application is pending; it may only be used once the application proceeds to registration and the trademark registration certificate has been issued. This is the holy grail of trademark symbols.

Takeaway: Although the law limits the instances when the encircled R can be used, it does not actually require you to use it. But it is very wise to do so! Not only does use of this symbol provide public notice of your registered mark, it gives you a leg up in an infringement lawsuit if you ever have to go down that road. Failure to use this symbol on registered marks actually impedes your ability to collect money damages or recover lost profits in such a suit!

Where should you place trademark symbols?

There are no specific rules regarding the placement of a trademark symbol, but usually, they are placed in the upper right hand of a mark. Sometimes if it doesn’t make sense to place it in the upper right hand, moving it to the lower right-hand corner may be more appropriate. It should not be used above, below, or to the left of a mark.

How often should you use trademark symbols on your marketing materials?

The rule of thumb is to use the appropriate trademark symbol at least once in a writing or other marketing piece. It is most common to use the TM, SM, or ® the first time a mark appears in the piece unless it’s visually disruptive or so small it is difficult to see. In this case, you should include it on a prominent use of the mark so that it is readily identifiable by a consumer.

Key Takeaways:

  • Use TM or SM for unregistered marks and ® for federally registered marks.
  • Place your symbol in the upper right-hand of your mark whenever possible.
  • Don’t overuse trademark symbols and create visual clutter on your marketing materials.
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