Trademarking your T-shirt design can be a tricky business. To do it right, one must be willing to do the research and put the work in. This is not a task for the faint of heart. If every detail is not observed, the work will be lost.
If you are at the point of trademarking your design, then you have come too far to let complacency get in your way. Here are a few important steps to help you trademark your T-shirt design.
Understanding How it Works
Obviously you are going to trademark the design or logo on the T-shirt, not the shirt itself. Exclusionary rights to the design belong to the person who first uses it in merchandising exchange. Registration of the design with a public entity does not promise exclusivity, nor does it promise ownership rights of the design. The act itself only gives public notice of the existing claim, but it does not promise ownership of the design. The right to use the design is determined by the "sales reach" of the shirt with the design. If you only sell shirts with your design on them in one state, then your exclusive right to use that design only applies in that state. If you want to increase your rights to the design, for example to multiple states, then you must also increase your sales to those states.
The first thing you want to do is make sure your design is distinctive; it shouldn't be similar to any other design out there, and it must be genuinely new and fully yours. You must be the first to use your design in business for trademark rights to apply. Pore over the Internet, use search engines, get on every T-shirt website you can find and make sure there is nothing similar to your design already being marketed. The US Patent and Trademark Office has an online database where you can search for similar registrations. For every state you plan to sell in, you will need to search the online database of that state. There is nothing more devastating than trying to trademark your design only to find out late in the game that it's been done before and you don't have the rights. Make notes on every search you do to keep track of where you've searched and what you've found in each state.
Give Public Notice
When you know you have an exclusive design, you can move forward. You'll first need to register your design locally, then in every state you plan to do business. Most secretary of state websites have a "business services" section where you can print out a trademark registration application.This is an expensive process because they all charge a fee. You'll have to fill out the form, pay the fee, and provide a sample of the design. This will give public notice in each state of your design and your intent to sell merchandise with that design.
Start Selling Quickly
You'll want to sell to the largest market possible as quickly as you can. Keep your receipts,especially those for the first merchandise sold in each state. This is your proof of first commerce. Sell a few locally while building your website. Remember, trademark rights for your design only apply in the states where you have sales. If you have friends or family in multiple states, call them up and ask them to buy a couple of shirts.
Now it's time to go to the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office. You will have to provide your name and address as the owner of the design, a description of the design, and a filing basis. "First Use," is the most common filing basis. It means you are the first to use your design in business. You will probably have to pay a fee and send in three samples of the design with your application.
This should be enough to get you started. Of course, there is always the option of going international, although that involves a longer process. Remember to use a trademark symbol whenever you use your design, even if your trademark is pending. It will help prevent people from infringing "innocently." Trademarking is an expensive, time-consuming, but worthy effort. If you believe in your work, and it hasn't been done before, follow these steps to trademark your T-shirt design.
Emilyne Jane, author
ASPA Staff and others