By Karen E. Klein Q: I am interested in trademarking a name and logo for wearing apparel. Can the search for the domain name and application process be done over the Internet? Who can I contact? -- R.R., Forest Park, Ill.
A: It is pretty easy to find out if a domain name is available. You can search at any of the Internet registrars, such as Network Solutions or Register.com, where you will be able to learn if someone else has beaten you to the name you desire. If it hasn't been taken, make an online payment to secure a year's registration and it's yours.
Be aware, however, that simply registering a particular Internet domain name doesn't grant legal rights to the trademark. "Trademark rights are gained through use of the mark in commerce. The rights are enhanced by registering the trademark legally," says Karen Marie Kitterman, an attorney specializing in intellectual-property law at Silicon Valley law firm Fenwick & West. You can file an application to register the trademark you want, even before you use it, at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office Web site. When that is done, the mark will be recognized as having been yours from the date the application was filed.
What you need to be careful about is in making sure the trademark you select hasn't been claimed by someone else -- either legally or through long use, a convention known as "common law rights". You can search for the Patent Office site, but since its search engine has been known to overlook new registrations, Kitterman warns that doing it yourself can produce unreliable results.
That's where professional outfits enter the picture. They will search the federal trademark database and each state's registry for a fee around $400, Kitterman says. You can order searches through services such as Thomson & Thomson and CCH Corsearch, but you're likely to get back a phone-book sized report that may be difficult to interpret without professional help.
If you hire a trademark attorney to guide you through the process, it will probably cost between $2,000 and $3,000 (including the search fee) -- but at least you'll be sure about the result.
Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues.