Make Sure Your Proposed Business Name Is Available

Before you start investing in company merch, do a business name search to find out if your desired business name is free for you to use.

By , Attorney Penn State Dickinson School of Law
Updated by Amanda Hayes, Attorney University of North Carolina School of Law
Updated 1/26/2022

Once you've picked the perfect business name, can you go ahead and use it? Not without doing your homework first. Before you claim it as your own, you need to make sure that you aren't treading on someone else's rights to the name. You should search through government databases and online to check whether the name is taken you want for your business.

Why Should You Check Whether a Business Name Is Taken?

To stay out of trouble, familiarize yourself with the basics of trademark law. Under federal trademark law, a business can't use a name that's likely to be confused with the name of a competing business.

For example, suppose Cordelia wants to start a detective agency called Angel Investigations. But across the city, Winifred is already running a private investigation firm under the name Angel Private Investigators. If Cordelia started using the name Angel Investigations, people might confuse her business with Winifred's or think the two companies are associated. So, Cordelia would probably need to settle on a different name to avoid any consumer confusion.

If you choose a business name that's too similar to a competitor's name, you might find yourself accused of violating the competitor's legal rights (called "trademark infringement" or "unfair competition"). If sued, you could be forced to change your business name and pay money damages.

There's only one way to ensure that you won't violate someone else's trademark rights: Do some digging to find out whether another business is already using a name that's identical or similar to the one you want to use.

How Do You Conduct a Business Name Search?

Unfortunately, there's no one place to look when searching for conflicting business names. In large part, the lack of one central database is because a business can establish trademark rights in a name simply by using it—and millions do just that.

You must use different search tactics to hunt for both registered and unregistered trademarks. Here's how to complete a thorough name search for your business.

1. Quick Screening Search

Before you invest too much time and money in a formal name search, take a few minutes to quickly screen out some of the names on your list. Type a name you're thinking of using into your favorite search engine. You can quickly see whether someone else on the internet is using a similar name to market similar products or services.

For example, if you want to use the name Tread Ahead for your auto repair business, you can enter "Tread Ahead" and "auto repair" into Google, Bing, Yahoo, or another search engine. If another auto repair business called "A Tread Ahead" comes up in the search, then you probably want to consider an alternate business name.

2. Fictitious Name Databases

Check with your city or county clerk's office to see whether your desired name is already on the list of fictitious business names in your county. You use a fictitious business name (FBN)—also called a "trade name," "doing business as" (DBA), or "assumed business name"—when you use a name that's different from your legal name or your registered business name.

Sole proprietorships. Sole proprietors use FBNs when their business name is different from their personal legal name. For example, suppose Abed Nadir sells paintball gear under the trade name Paint the Fourth Wall. He would probably need to register his FBN because it's different from his legal name, Abed Nadir.

Registered business. Businesses that are registered with the state (like corporations and LLCs) use FBNs when their trade names differ from the names they have registered with the state. For example, suppose a corporation is registered as McDuck Enterprises, but it runs advertisements under the name The Scrooge Company. The Scrooge Company would be an FBN of McDuck Enterprises.

If you use an FNB, you'll probably have to register it with your city, county, or state—and registered FBNs will show up in an FBN database.

This list will contain names that you won't find in any other database—usually unregistered trademarks of very small companies. If you find that your chosen name (or a very similar name) is listed on a local fictitious or assumed name register, you shouldn't use it.

3. Corporation, LLC, and Limited Partnership Name Databases

If you're organizing your business as a corporation, LLC, or limited partnership, you must be sure your business name isn't the same as that of an existing corporation, LLC, or limited partnership in your state.

To look through other business names, you can search your state filing office's name database. If your proposed name (or a very similar one) shows up in your state's database, you'll have to choose another.

Examples of state business name search tools include:

4. Unregistered Business Names

To search for marks that aren't federally registered as trademarks with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), you'll have to get creative.

You can search for business names on these platforms:

  • The internet. The internet is a good place to start your search for unregistered business names. By completing a simple internet search, you can quickly see whether and how someone else is using a specific name.
  • Social media. Check for your desired business name on popular social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Even if you don't plan on using one of the platforms for your own business, taking this step will allow you to see whether another business is already using the name.
  • Domain name search. Another easy way to look for business names online is to go to a domain name search, such as Google Domains, and key in variations of the name you want to use. If another company has reserved a domain name that contains your desired business name and provides similar goods or services, chances are you won't be able to use it.

5. Registered Trademarks

Finally, everyone starting a business, no matter how small, should search the federal trademark database to determine whether the name they want to use has already been registered with the USPTO. The USPTO is the federal agency that oversees the registration of federal trademarks.

Avoid liability for "willful infringement." If you use a trademark that's on the federal register and the trademark owner sues you, you can be liable for what's called "willful infringement." Willful infringement is when you knowingly violate someone else's trademark. If a trademark is registered, the registration qualifies as notice. So, even if you don't check the USPTO database, the law says you should've known about the registered trademark because you had notice. Willful infringement carries more costly penalties than other types of trademark violations. Plus, it's easy to search for federally registered trademarks.

Use the USPTO's free trademark database. You can search for federally registered trademarks by using the free trademark database on the USPTO's website. To start, go to the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) and choose "Basic Word Mark Search." Once there, enter your business name into the search box and look through the resulting entries.

Check state trademark databases. In addition to checking the federal trademark register, it's a good idea to check your state's trademark database. The state register is often part of the secretary of state's office, though in some states it has a department of its own. Check with your secretary of state or corporations division for more information.

For more information, read our article on how to perform a trademark search.

What If Your Business Name Isn't Available?

Sometimes you think of a business name and become immediately attached to the idea. The name could be sentimental (like your grandmother's nickname for you) or clever wordplay (think Reddit). But in your search, maybe you find that someone has already started using the name. So, what are your options, and do you have to choose another name?

If another business is using your desired name and the goods or services it provides are related to yours, it's best to find a different name as soon as you can. As your business grows, it'll only become more challenging to change your company's marketing materials and branding.

For tips, check out our FAQ on choosing a business name.

Can Two Businesses Ever Have the Same Name?

In limited circumstances, two businesses that don't compete with each other can have the same name. However, you might be infringing on the trademark of the other competing business if either:

  • the business operates in the same geographic location, or
  • the business's name is federally registered.

Further, if a company name is considered famous or well-known—like, Apple or McDonald's— it has broader protection, and usually, no other business can use the mark, regardless of the industry or location.

Overall, to avoid running into legal problems down the line, it's best to avoid using another company's name. (For more information, read to learn whether someone else using your business name is trademark infringement.)

What Happens If You Use Another Business's Name?

If two businesses with the same name are located on opposite ends of the country, then they probably can reasonably coexist without an issue. But once one business applies for federal trademark registration for their company name with the USPTO, the businesses can usually no longer share the same name without infringement.

When you federally register a trademark—like a business name—then you have exclusive ownership over that mark across the United States. Prior to federal registration, you only have rights to your trademark in the geographic area where you use the trademark. So, if a similar trademark was being used first in a different region, you could probably continue to use your trademark as long as the other trademark isn't federally registered.

But if the other trademark owner decides to register their mark later, you probably wouldn't be able to stop the registration (unless you register the name first). Once they register their name, the owner can enforce their trademark rights across the United States and stop you from using your similar mark. So, if you find that another business is already using your proposed name, the safest option is to choose another name.

If you decide to use the other business's name anyway, you might not run into legal problems right away or ever. If the other company never expands or files for federal registration, you probably won't have a problem. But you never know what another company plans to do, and you don't want to risk having to change your name and rebrand your business years later.

Using an existing business name has several risks and disadvantages:

  • If you decide to register your business name, you could face opposition from the other business. If the other company decides to fight your registration, you'll probably lose because they started using the trademark first.
  • The other business can sue you for trademark infringement. Not only can they force you to stop using the trademark, but they can also make you pay them money damages. The damages could equal the financial harm you caused them or the profits you've made under their trademark name.
  • You risk having to rebrand your business. If the other business discovers you and you're forced to change your name, in addition to facing potential money damages, you'll have to spend time and money rebranding your business. You'll likely have to file paperwork to legally change your company's name with your state. You could also need to change your website, social media, advertisements, merchandise, letterhead, and business cards. In addition, you'll need to announce the transition to customers and work to make sure that they'll still be able to recognize your company under a new name.

Talking to a Trademark Lawyer

You can conduct a business name search on your own—and many small businesses do just that every day. But if you plan to invest a considerable amount into your brand and plan to apply for trademark registration, you should consider talking to an attorney with trademark experience. They can perform a comprehensive search for you and provide guidance on what you should do when another company has a name that's the same or similar to your proposed name.

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