Now that you've picked the perfect business name, can you go ahead and use it? Not without doing your homework first. You must make sure that you aren't treading on someone else's rights to the name.
To stay out of trouble, familiarize yourself with the basics of trademark law, which prevents a business from using a name that is likely to be confused with the name of a competing business. 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"), and you could be forced to change your business name and possibly 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.
Unfortunately, there's no one place to look when searching for conflicting business names. In large part, this is because a business can establish a trademark 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:
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.
First, check with your county clerk's office to see whether your desired name is already on the list of fictitious, doing business as ("DBA"), or assumed business names in your county. (In a few states, there is just one statewide fictitious name database -- if that's the case in your state, your county clerk will tell you.)
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.
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. Contact your state filing office to find out how to search their 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:
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 business name on popular social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Even if you do not plan on using one of the platforms for your own business, taking this step will allow you to see if 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, chances are you won't be able to use it, assuming the domain name qualifies as a trademark -- and it will as long as the underlying website is used commercially.
For more information on conflicts between domain names and trademarks, see Nolo's article Domain Names and Trademarks FAQ.
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 U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
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 -- that is, knowingly violating someone else's trademark, even though you didn't actually check the federal database. 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 USPTO's Trademark Electronic Business Center and choose "Search trademarks." Then follow the instructions you see on the screen.
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.