Skip to main content

Copyright for students and faculty: Trademarks

Copyright This guide is intended to provide information about copyright and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have legal questions concerning copyright, please consult appropriate legal counsel.

What is a trademark?

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination thereof, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.  Trademarks, unlike patents, can be renewed forever as long as they are being used in business.

Trademark symbols

1. What does the symbol TM mean?

The symbol TM is used to provide notice of a claim of common-law rights in a trademark. A TM usually is used in connection with an unregistered mark, to inform potential infringers that a term, slogan, logo or other indicator is being claimed as a trademark. Use of the TM symbol does not guarantee that the owner’s mark will be protected under trademark laws. The owner may continue to use TM should registration of the mark be refused.

2. What does the symbol SM mean?

The symbol SM functions similarly to the symbol TM, in that it is used to provide notice of a claim of common-law rights in a mark; however, it is used in connection with a service mark, covering services, such as banking or legal services, rather than tangible goods. Use of the SM symbol does not guarantee that the owner’s mark will be protected under trademark laws.

3. What does the symbol ® mean?

The symbol ® is a notice of registered ownership used in many countries or regions to advise the public that a trademark or service mark is registered and to provide constructive notice of the legal ownership status of the mark with which it is used. The ® symbol should be used only in connection with registered trademarks or service marks. In the United States, use of ® may be instituted only after registration of the mark is granted. Use of ® with an unregistered mark may result in claims of fraud where the owner demonstrates intent, knowing and willful misuse, and attempts to deceive or mislead consumers, or in other difficulties for the owner in trying to obtain and/or enforce its trademark rights.


4. How should the TM, SM or ® symbol be used?

There is some flexibility as to how and where to use the TM, SM or ® symbol. Typically, it is placed in the upper right-hand corner, in the lower right-hand corner, or level with the mark or logo itself—each is an acceptable way of displaying the appropriate symbol. While there is no specific requirement regarding where these symbols should be used, most often they are placed adjacent to (or, in the case of a design mark, in) the upper right-hand corner of the mark, in superscript (raised) font. Example: COCA-COLA®. The TM, SM or ® symbol need only appear with the first or most prominent mention of a mark in all documentation, such as press releases, articles and company reports.

Types of trademarks

Registered Trademarks refer to trademarks that have been registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  Only registered trademarks are permitted to use the r symbol.

State Trademarks as the name suggests, are trademarks that have been registered by a state, not the USPTO.  These trademarks are only valid in the state where they are registered.  State trademarks use the TM symbol.

Findlaw maintains a site with trademark information from all 50 states.

Common Law Trademarks are trademarks that have not been registered by the USPTO, nor have they been registered in any state.  It is not necessary to register a trademark.  You can establish legal rights simply by using the trademark in commerce.  Common law trademarks use the TM symbol.  State courts have jurisdiction for these trademarks.

Trade Secrets are information that companies keep secret to give them an advantage over their competitors. The formula for Coca-Cola is the most famous trade secret.  Trade secrets are protected by state laws, not trademarks or copyright