How to Name a Business Legally

James W. Martin

Every business needs a name. To tell customers what it is. To differentiate it from competition. And to identify it legally. Just like every person needs a name.

And, just like naming a person, naming a business takes time, thought, effort, and communication. You can’t just go register a domain name on Go Daddy and be done with it. Well, you can, but be ready to suffer the consequences.

Legal consequences. Business names have legal consequences. State and federal trademark laws prohibit your business name being confusingly similar to a trademark. 

Books. But, let’s start at the beginning. How do you think of a name for your business. There are lots of books of names for newborn babies. Are there books for newborn businesses? It turns out there are. The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries and How to Launch a Brand by Fabian Geyrhalter are just two on Amazon.

Federal Trademarks. Let’s say you apply your new marketing skills and come up with a list of 5 to 10 possible names for your business. What’s the next step? I suggest heading over to the USPTO and doing a search of federal trademark registrations. And if any of your possible names match any word, and I mean any word, of a trademark there, then strike it off your list of possible names. Because it’s just not worth the possible consequences. Unless you have lots of money backing you up and you like to meet conflict head on.

State Trademarks and Entities. Trademark law is complicated by the fact that not only does the US Government register trademarks, but all 50 states also register them. You can engage a trademarks lawyer or search firm to search all 50 states, but before you take that step, you can search your own state databases of trademark and entity names. For example, in Florida, you can search for names of existing trademarks, corporations, LLCs, partnerships, and fictitious names by accessing databases on the Florida Division of Corporations website. Most states have similar databases.

Google. Finally, you’ll want to do a Google search of your possible names to be sure there are no businesses using a confusingly similar name. It turns out that another complication of trademark law is that trademarks don’t need to be registered. It’s true that registering a trademark gives additional rights to its owner, but common law trademark rights exist in most businesses in most states without registration. So, a Google search might identify more business names to avoid.

Ready to Hire a Lawyer. After you’ve whittled your list of possible business names down to those you think would not be confusingly similar to a trademark, it’s time to hire a lawyer to help you set up your business, legally. Because, believe it or not, there’s more to a business than its name.

For additional information, see the free ebooks written by St. Petersburg business lawyer James W. Martin on how to form a Florida LLC, Florida business corporation, and Florida nonprofit corporation.

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