No doubt you'll spend hours brainstorming for a business name that represents your products or services—a name that's both marketable and infused with personality. To help the creative process along, you might surf the web, browse the dictionary, read trade magazines, and bounce ideas off of friends and colleagues. But as you hunt for the perfect name, keep three main questions in mind:
Plus, if you're starting a corporation, LLC, or limited partnership, you must comply with a few state rules for naming your business. (For more information, read how to choose a business name for your corporation or LLC.)
You'll have to conduct a name and trademark search to make sure no one else is using the name you want to use (or a very similar name) to market similar products or services. You should also check with your county clerk's office to see whether your proposed name is already on the list of fictitious or assumed business names in your county. If you find that your chosen name (or a very similar one) is registered as a trademark, or is listed on a fictitious or assumed name register, you shouldn't use it.
If you're organizing your business as a corporation, LLC, or limited partnership, you must also make sure your business name isn't the same as that of an existing corporation, LLC, or limited partnership in your state. If a name that's identical or very similar to your proposed business name turns up in your state's database, you'll have to choose another.
The legal name of a business is the official name of the person or entity that owns a business. If you are the only owner of your business, then its legal name is simply your full name.
If your business is a general partnership, and you have a written partnership agreement that gives a name to the partnership, then that name is the legal name of the business. Otherwise, the legal name of a general partnership consists of the last names of the owners.
For limited partnerships, LLCs, and corporations, the legal name of the business is the name registered with the state filing office.
Your business's legal name will be required on all government forms and applications, and it's particularly important to use on your application for a federal employer identification number.
If you plan to use a name that's different from your business's legal name, you'll need to register the name you want to use with a government agency. For more information, see, What Is a DBA?
The term "fictitious business name" (or "assumed business name," "trade name," or "DBA" for "doing business as") is used when a business uses a name that's different from its legal name. For instance, if John O'Toole names his sole proprietorship Turtle's Classic Cars, the name "Turtle's Classic Cars" is a fictitious business name because it doesn't contain John's full name, "John O'Toole."
If your business uses a fictitious business name, you'll need to register it with a government agency—in most states, your local county clerk's office.
For more information on what qualifies as a fictitious name, read about name variations as fictitious business names.
If you're starting a corporation, LLC, or limited partnership, your official business name will be automatically registered when you file your articles of incorporation, articles of organization, or statement of limited partnership with your state filing office. However, if you'll sell products or services under a different name, you must also file a fictitious name statement (sometimes called an "assumed" name statement) with the state or county where your business is headquartered.
Other types of businesses might also have to comply with fictitious or assumed business name requirements. Generally, any business that doesn't use its legal name as part of its business name must file a fictitious name statement with a government agency, usually the county clerk's office.
You might also want to take advantage of the extra protection that registering your name as a trademark can give you. While it's not required, registering your name as a trademark at the state and/or federal level can prevent other businesses from using a name that's likely to be confused with your business name. For more information, see our FAQ on filing a federal trademark application.
Some people confuse choosing a business name with choosing a type of ownership structure, such as a corporation or limited liability company (LLC). But you can't just tack "Inc." or "LLC" onto the end of your business name and start calling yourself a corporation or LLC.
First, you must form a corporation or LLC, and to do so you've got to follow certain filing procedures to register the new type of company with your state.
For step-by-step help in choosing and registering your business name, see The Small Business Start-Up Kit: A Step-by-Step Legal Guide, by Peri H. Pakroo (Nolo).
There's no one-size-fits-all formula for picking a great business name. The best name depends on a host of considerations—some as obvious as the kind of business you do, others as unique as your own tastes and style. There are, however, a few guidelines that will steer you in the right direction.
A good business name should:
Consider a few more tips to use in your search for a distinctive business name:
A trademark (sometimes called simply a "mark") is any word, phrase, design, or symbol used to market a product or service. Technically, a mark used to market a service, rather than a product, is called a service mark, though the term "trademark" is commonly used for both types of marks because they refer to the same group of legal protections. Owners of trademarks have rights under both federal and state law that give them the power in many cases to prevent others from using the same or confusingly similar trademarks.
To make sure your proposed business name won't step on someone else's rights to an existing trademark, you'll have to do a trademark search. Also, when picking a business name, you should take care to choose a name that'll be likely to receive trademark protection, and then take steps to protect your business name as a trademark.
Trademark law will prevent another business from using a name or logo that's likely to be confused with your business name if your business name is entitled to trademark protection. If your business is anything but a small, local service or retail business, such as a dry cleaner or a fabric store, you'll probably want to take advantage of trademark protections.
A domain name, such as nolo.com, can qualify as a trademark when it's used in connection with a website that offers services to the public. Domain name trademarks can include all sites conducting e-commerce and sites that provide web-related services, such as Yahoo.com.
However, only some types of commercial domain names qualify for trademark protection. For instance, while domain names that use common or descriptive terms—such as healthanswers.com or stampfinders.com—might work very well to bring users to a website, they usually don't qualify for much trademark protection. Owners of such domain names generally won't have much luck stopping the use of these words and phrases in other domain names.
By using common terms that are the generic name for the service (for example, "dictionary.com") or by using words that merely describe the service or some aspect of it (for example, "returnbuy.com"), the owner of the name will have less trademark rights against the users of similar domain names than they would if the domain name was distinctive.
It's possible to acquire ownership of a trademark by filing an "intent-to-use" (ITU) trademark application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) before actually starting to use the domain name. The USPTO is the federal agency that grants and maintains federal trademark registration.
The applicant must start using the domain name within the required time limits—six months to three years after the USPTO approves the trademark, depending on whether the applicant seeks and pays for extensions of time. The USPTO can only grant registration once the owner has started using the mark.
Even if a company owns a federally registered trademark, someone else could still have the right to the domain name. For example, many different companies have federally registered the trademark Executive for different goods or services. All of these companies might want to use www.executive.com but the first one to purchase it—in this case, Executive Software—is the one that acquired the domain name and has the rights to it.
Sometimes a person (known as a "cybersquatter") purchases or registers a domain name with the intent to later resell the domain name to the trademark owner for a profit. If you believe that someone has taken a domain in bad faith, you can either:
The ACPA defines cybersquatting as registering, trafficking in, or using a domain name with the intent to profit in bad faith from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else. The ICANN arbitration system is considered by trademark experts to be faster and less expensive than suing under the ACPA, and the procedure doesn't require an attorney. For information on the ICANN cybersquatting policy, you can visit its website.
Courts and arbitrators generally side with trademark owners in these disputes and order the cybersquatter to stop using the trademarked name.
If you discover that the domain name you want to use has already been registered, read about your options if the domain you want is taken.
Choosing a name is an important first step to launching your business. Your business name will appear on your invoices, business cards, and website, as well as in business directories and online databases. It identifies your business to your customers and is difficult to change once you open your doors. It's important to pick a name that's legally and commercially sound.
If you're unsure about whether your name is available or whether it's legally protectable, consider speaking to a small business or intellectual property lawyer. A small business attorney can run a simple business name search and help you register your name and business. An intellectual property attorney with trademark experience can conduct a more thorough name search, register your mark, and advise you on your trademark rights and protections.