How a Guild, Union, or Other Organization Can Trademark Its Name

Should a guild or union trademark its name?

Trademark mainly serve to protect the name and logo of various entities. "Apple" is a well-known trademark for the computing company, for instance, and so is its apple-shaped logo with the bite out of the right side. By having a federal registration over both the name and the logo, Apple can prevent a competitor from opening a company that would confuse consumers and divert business.

But trademarks are not only for discrete companies. In trademark law, a "collective mark" is a symbol, label, word, phrase, or other distinguishing mark that signifies membership in an organization (sometimes called a collective membership mark) or that identifies goods or services that originate from the member organization (sometimes called a collective trademark). How do such marks work, and are they right for your organization?

What Trademarks Are Good For

Companies' names are important. They serve as marketing devices and statements of identity. Many companies, large and small, invest time and money into marketing their names so that customers recognize and remember that name. This is true for companies like Apple that sell products in stores and online, and also true for major cultural organizations (such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty, Lincoln Center) and educational organizations with strong brands (such as Vassar College, Harvard University, and Stanford).

Though all of these entities have different scopes and missions, they all need market recognition to survive.

Federal trademarks are authorized by the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1051 et seq., which outlines the rights and responsibilities of trademark owners. To obtain federal protection for your entity's name or logo, you must register it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the federal agency charged with overseeing trademarks.

Federally registering your trademark makes it easier for you to enforce your rights as a trademark owner because you will automatically be presumed to own the mark. Anyone who uses it after your registration is presumed to know about it because the mark is publicly listed on the federal government's register of trademarks.

Learn more about trademarks.

How Collective Trademarks Help Groups Protect Their Brand

Not all trademarks relate to a specific business or entity. Collective marks are marks that distinguish the geographical origin, material, or other common characteristics of goods or services of different enterprises using the collective mark. The owner may be either an association of which those enterprises are members or any other entity.

Such marks are specifically permitted by 15 U.S.C. § 1054 of the Lanham Act, which provides: "the registration of... collective and certification marks, including indications of regional origin, shall be registrable... in the same manner and with the same effect as are trademarks, by persons, and nations, States, municipalities, and the like, exercising legitimate control over the use of the marks sought to be registered, even though not possessing an industrial or commercial establishment, and when registered they shall be entitled to the protection provided in this chapter in the case of trademarks...."

In other words, collective marks can be used in the same manner as regular trademarks, even though the membership organization is not itself producing the goods and services. Rather, the "member" entities are the ones doing the production.

Where might you find such collective marks being used? Consider businesses bound together by a common mission, geography, or quality. For example, the letters "ILGWU" on a shirt are a collective mark identifying the shirt as a product of members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. It distinguishes that shirt from those made by nonunion shops.

Another example of a collective membership mark is the familiar "FTD" found in many flower shops. This mark means that the flower shop is part of a group that participates in a national flower delivery system. To belong to that group—and thus obtain authorization to use the FTD mark—the shop must pay membership fees and conform its practices to the rules set out by the group.

A collective mark can also function as a trademark or service mark, signifying that a product or service originates from an organization. If you are a member of a group or trade organization (for instance, “THE MAINE CRAFTS GUILD”), you probably want to limit use of the name to members of the guild. You would not want nonmembers to use the name, since that would undermine the group’s standards. Being a member night require certain accomplishments, sales records, quality of materials sold, or other metrics.

The collective mark is owned by the organization (not by any particular member). For example, The MAINE CRAFTS GUILD collective mark could be used to sell member products (selected crafts works) or offer services (knitting lessons). In other words, a collective mark can be used in two ways: to signify membership or as a trademark.

If your organization, guild, or association could benefit from trademark protection, consider registering a collective mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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