A Short Primer on Trademarks for Veterinarians

Jul 1 | News, Practice Management

By Joseph T. Leone, DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C.

A good trademark, as any marketer will tell you, creates an instant, indelible feeling in a potential buyer of your goods or services. Compare, for example, Rolex® with Timex®. Does a Rolex®-brand watch keep better time than a Timex®-brand watch? Unlikely. Why then can Rolex charge several thousand dollars for a stainless steel watch, while Timex can charge no more than perhaps fifty dollars for a steel watch of comparable accuracy? It’s all in the trademark and the advertising behind the trademark.

The same is true with respect to the marketing of professional services, including veterinary services. But what is it that makes a trademark so valuable? The value lies in creating the good feelings in consumers’ minds that causes them to buy your veterinary services again and again (or to pay a premium for your services). So what is a trademark?

Legal Definition: A trademark is a word, phrase, logo, or design which is attached to goods or services, and which functions to identify the source of those goods or services.

Real-World Definition: A trademark is an identifier (an adjective) by which your customers recognize, select, and purchase your company’s goods or services.

Trademarks are attached to tangible goods, such as branded pharmaceuticals. Think Baytril®-brand antibiotics (Bayer) or Xalatan®-brand eye drops (Pfizer Health).

Service marks are attached to services, such as veterinary services. Be creative! Two of my favorites are “Valet Vet”® for mobile veterinary services (Valet Vet Mobile Veterinary Services out of Phoenix, Arizona) or “Healthy Pets Start with Happy Vets.”® (Southern California Veterinary Group out of Norco, California). (Who doesn’t want to be a “happy vet”?)

Trademarks and service marks are identical in form and function. The only difference is that trademarks apply to goods; service marks apply to services. So for a veterinary practice, you would seek to register a service mark.

A trade name, in contrast, is your corporate name: the legal entity under which a company is organized.

Registered Marks vs. Common Law Marks: Trademark/Service marks that are the subject of federal registration get the ® symbol. To secure federal registration for your trademark, you must file an application with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. If your mark is federally registered, you can sue under the federal laws (the Lanham Act) for unfair competition. This is a distinct benefit because the federal trademark laws have more bite than the corresponding state laws.

Unregistered marks get the “™” symbol. In almost all situations, a dispute with an unscrupulous competitor over an unregistered mark would be heard in a local state court applying that state’s unfair competition laws.

The value of a trademark is created by using it properly over time. By using it properly over time, your customers and potential customers associate your mark with the quality services you provide. There are six simple rules for creating a valuable trademark:

1. Use trademarks as proper adjectives. Always associate your mark with a generic noun. Never use your mark as a noun, verb, plural, or possessive.
2. Distinguish the mark from surrounding words using ® (for federally-registered marks) or “™” (for unregistered marks).
3. Display your trademark consistently.
4. Pick a distinctive name or phrase for your trademark and obtain a trademark search before adopting a new mark.
5. Never imitate another company’s name, mark, slogan.
6. Never allow unauthorized use of your trademarks.