A Domain Name Is Fair Game Till It's Trademarked
Repeat after me, entrepreneurs: A domain-name registration isn't a trademark. Most small-business owners don't realize the distinction until someone infringes on their Net handle, warns East Haven (Conn.)'s Micropatent, which runs a database of trademarks and patents on the Web.
Some entrepreneurs are starting to twig that they need to trademark their names to protect them. In July, Micropatent scoured the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office database and found 2,436 pending dot.com trademarks in the first six months of 1999, up 572% from the same period last year. That sounds heartening until you realize that there are millions of Web businesses -- most of them small -- that haven't bothered, Micropatent points out.
The problem will get worse, says Alan Davidson, executive vice-president at Micropatent, when other suffixes like "dot.net" catch on. "The average small-business person is lulled into a sense of false security by the fact they own the domain name," he says. That won't protect you in court the way a trademark will, however.
So what should small businesses do, Mr. Davidson? Search a database. Micropatent has one you can search for a fee, or you could try the Patent Office's for free -- to see if the name you plan to dot.com is trademarked. If it isn't, then get in there and trademark it yourself. Sure would be a shame to lose that brand name to some interloper.
By Jeremy Quittner in New York