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Can a Company Use Our Trademark Without Permission?

Ream Law Firm, L.L.C. Dec. 28, 2023

When it comes to protecting your business's brand, trademarks play an integral role. And unauthorized use of a trademark can lead to significant legal consequences.  

Trademark infringement occurs when one party uses a trademark that's identical or confusingly similar to a trademark owned by another party, in a way that could deceive or confuse consumers about the source of goods or services. The primary test for trademark infringement is 'likelihood of confusion. ' If consumers are likely to assume that a product or service is affiliated with or endorsed by the trademark owner, there may be grounds for a trademark infringement case. 

Understanding Trademark Permission

Trademark permission refers to the authorization given by a trademark owner to another party, allowing them to use the trademark in a specific manner. This permission is often formalized through a licensing agreement where the trademark owner (licensor) grants the licensee the right to use the trademark for certain purposes, such as selling products or promoting services. 

It's important to note that granting permission doesn't mean the trademark owner relinquishes their rights. The licensor maintains ownership and control over how the trademark is used. In fact, the licensing agreement typically outlines the terms and conditions of use, including the duration and geographical scope of the license. 

Without permission, using a trademark can lead to infringement claims, which can have significant legal repercussions. To avoid such scenarios, it's crucial to seek proper authorization before using someone else's trademark. If you're unsure about the process or need assistance, consulting with a knowledgeable professional like Dale J. Ream can be immensely beneficial.  

Is Trademark Permission Always Required?

There are certain instances where a trademark doesn't need permission for use. These exceptions fall under the doctrine of fair use, which permits the use of a trademark under specific circumstances without obtaining prior consent. The following are a few examples of fair use: 

  • Descriptive fair use. This allows the use of another's trademark to describe the user's products or services, rather than as a trademark to indicate the source of the products or services. For instance, if a company sells apple pies, it may use the word 'apple' in its advertising even if there are pre-existing trademarks involving the word 'apple'. 

  • Nominative fair use. This permits the use of a trademark to refer to the trademark owner's product. For instance, an independent repair shop may use the trademark of a car manufacturer in their advertising to indicate that they service cars of that particular brand.  

  • Comparative advertising. This is when one company uses another's trademark in an ad to compare their product or service favorably against the competitor's. As long as the comparison is truthful and not misleading, this use is generally considered fair. 

  • News reporting and commentary. Journalists, critics, and other commentators can use trademarks in their work when providing commentary or reporting on matters of public interest. This is considered fair use because it contributes to public discourse and knowledge. 

  • Educational use. Trademarks can be used in an academic context for teaching or research without infringing on trademark rights. For instance, a business school professor might use real-world company logos in a lecture to illustrate marketing strategies. 

  • Parody and satire. Courts have sometimes permitted the use of trademarks in parodies, where the trademark is used in a humorous or satirical way that comments on the brand or its products. However, this area of law is complex and varies widely between jurisdictions. 

  • When a trademark becomes generic. If a trademark becomes so well-known that it's used as a generic term for a type of product or service, it could potentially lose its trademark protection. An example is 'escalator', which was once a registered trademark but became a common term for moving staircases. 

However, these exceptions are not absolute and can often be a complex area of law. It's always best to consult with a trademark attorney to determine if your use falls under the doctrine of fair use or requires permission from the trademark owner. 

Legal Recourses for Trademark Infringement

What can you do if you discover that another company is using your trademark without permission?  

When trademark infringement is suspected, the trademark owner can take several steps. Initially, it may be beneficial to engage in direct communication with the infringing party, seeking voluntary compliance. If this proves unsuccessful, the trademark owner can file a lawsuit against the infringer. Successful litigation can result in court orders (injunctions) that stop further use of the trademark, along with monetary damages. 

Dale J. Ream, of the Ream Law Firm, L.L.C., situated in Ottawa, Kansas, offers comprehensive advice and representation to clients dealing with these issues. With his extensive experience in prosecuting hundreds of patent applications to issuance, he is well-versed in the legal recourses available to you. 

Preventing Trademark Infringement

Proactive measures are always more effective than reactive ones. To prevent potential trademark infringements, Dale J. Ream advises businesses to register their trademarks. While trademark rights in the U.S. are based on use, registering a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides broader protection, including a legal presumption of ownership and the exclusive right to use the trademark nationwide. 

Moreover, it's crucial to monitor the marketplace for potential infringements and take immediate action when they are identified. This can be as straightforward as setting up Google alerts for your trademark or as comprehensive as hiring a professional trademark watch service. 

Knowledgeable Guidance for IP Law Matters

Essentially, unauthorized use of your trademark by another company is a serious matter that can significantly impact your business. But there are exceptions. Fortunately, with trustworthy guidance from experienced attorneys like Dale J. Ream of Ream Law Firm, L.L.C., you can effectively handle these legal challenges, protect your intellectual property, and maintain the integrity of your brand. 

Ream Law Firm, L.L.C., located in Ottawa, Kansas, serves clients throughout the larger region of Kansas City, including the communities of Johnson County, Kansas, and Jackson County, Missouri. Whether you're an inventor needing guidance with patent applications or a business navigating the complexities of product development, Dale J. Ream brings over 25 years of experience as a registered patent attorney and a deep understanding of the engineering and manufacturing processes to help you achieve your goals.