Understanding how a trademark works

Guide to understanding what a trademark is, the different types of trademarks, searching for United States registered trademarks and how to apply for one

12/11/20232 min read

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Trademark News

* The USPTO will incorporate the changes made to the International Classification of Goods and Services which go into effect on January 1, 2024

* The New - Trademark Search beta interface will replace the current Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) on November 30, 2023. See recordings of training webinars of the new interface.

* Fashion, Beauty and Intellectual Property, presented by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, November 30, 2023, 4-5 pm EST

What is a Trademark?

According to United States Code, a trademark is "...any word, name, symbol or device used in trade to indicate the source or origin of goods or services, and to distinguish them from the goods and services of others." Examples of current or past trademarks include-


  • Acme

  • Kleenex

  • Xerox


red yellow and blue striped illustration
red yellow and blue striped illustration


  • “Good to the Last Drop”

  • “Reach Out and Touch Someone”


  • Sara Lee

  • McDonald’s

  • Martha Stewart


  • Tiffany blue

  • UPS brown

  • NBC chimes

Unlike patents, U.S. registered trademarks are not limited in duration. They are valid as long as the trademark continues to be used in commerce and maintenance fees are paid regularly. Similar to patents, trademarks are also administered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Information about United States trademarks is found on trademarks section of the USPTO website.

It's important to remember that not all applications are accepted by the USPTO as trademarks especially if they are merely descriptive of the product or if there is a likelihood of confusion by the general public with another existing unrelated trademark. Also, even if a trademark used in commerce is not registered with the USPTO it is considered common law usage which provides legal protection in the local geographic location where it is used.

Please see the USPTO's Trademark Basics Registration Toolkit to understand the trademark registration process.

The New York Public Library Thomas Yoseloff Business Center is a Patent and Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) with the USPTO.

person sitting near table holding newspaper
person sitting near table holding newspaper

What is a Patent?

A patent gives its owner the legal exclusive right to his or her invention for a limited period of time. After the term of a patent expires, the technology become public domain to benefit of society. A patent is granted by a country's intellectual property office which in the United States is the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

What is a Copyright?

A copyright protects the intellectual content of artistic, literary and musical works such as a book, manuscript, musical score or photograph. See What Does Copyright Protect? Copyrights are registered with the United States Copyright Office.

Use the USPTO's IP Identifier to identify and protect your intellectual property.

For further explanation, watch the USPTO video Basic Facts: Trademarks, Patents and Copyrights.

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