What is a 'Trademark'

A trademark is a recognizable insignia, phrase or other symbol that denotes a specific product or service and legally differentiates it from all other products.


A trademark serves to exclusively identify a product or service with a specific company, and is a recognition of that company's ownership of the brand. Trademarked products are generally considered a form of property. Most countries have agencies through which businesses can have their products trademarked. In the United States, this function is served by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. A trademark can be a logo, like the Nike Swoosh, a slogan, or simply the name of a product. Some brands, like Kleenex, are so prominent that they have almost replaced the original word (tissue) in everyday language. 

One of the main purposes of having a product trademarked is to protect the product from being used without permission of the source company. Most countries have patent laws which are designed to protect against copyright infringement. International copyright regulation is much more complicated, as there exists no universally recognized patent office. 

To register a patent in the United States, a business must submit a patent application to the Patent Office, which will be reviewed by an attorney to determine that the patent has been registered in accordance with federal regulations and that it is a distinct product and does not infringe on the trademark rights of an existing patent. After the application has been reviewed, the patent is "published for opposition" for 30 days, during which time other companies can oppose the registration of the new patent.

Trademarks can be bought and sold. Famously, Nike purchased the instantly recognizable Swoosh logo for only $35. Trademarks can also be licensed to other companies for an agreed-upon period of time or under certain conditions, which can result in crossover brands. Lego, a distinct company, has licensed many famous brands like Star Wars and DC Comics to produce Lego versions of popular products. These are also examples of the importance of branding products from a marketing perspective. Trademarks help distinguish products not only within the legal system, but to the consumer.

History of the Trademark

Trademark, as the word implies, is a mark that shows the trade of the maker. In 1266, King Henry III of England passed a law requiring all bakers to make a distinctive mark for all the bread they sold. The Löwenbraü brewery in Munich, Germany claims it has used a lion (Löwenbraü means "lion's brew") as its trademark since 1383.

The first modern trademark law was promulgated in France in 1857, and Britain first issued its trademark law, the Merchandise Marks Act, in 1862. The British act made it a criminal offense to try and sell a product under the auspices of another manufacturer.

In the U.S., Congress tried to pass a trademark law in 1870, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court that year. Congress tried again in 1881, which was revised into the Trademark Act in 1905.