Trademarks are distinctive symbols, pictures or words that sellers use to distinguish and identify the origin of their products. Trademark status may also be granted to distinctive and unique packaging, color combinations, building designs, product styles and overall presentations. It is also possible to receive trademark status for identification that is not on its face distinct or unique but that has developed a secondary meaning over time that identifies it with the product or seller.
The owner of a trademark has the exclusive right to use it on the product it was intended to identify and often on related products. Service marks receive the same legal protection as trademarks but are meant to distinguish services rather than products.
In the U.S., trademarks may be protected by both federal statute, under the Lanham Act, and state statutory and/or common laws. A trademark registered under the Lanham Act has nationwide protection.
Under the act, a seller applies to register a trademark with the Patent and Trademark Office. The mark may already be in use or be one that will be used in the future. If the trademark is approved by an examiner, it is published in the Trademark Official Gazette to notify other parties of the pending approval so that it may be opposed. An appeals process is available for rejected applications.
Under state common law, trademarks are protected as part of the law of unfair competition. State statutory provisions on trademarks differ but most have adopted a version of the Model Trademark Bill or the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The bill provides for registration of trademarks while the act does not.