U.S. Trademarks Searchable on Web

Article excerpt

Gilmer is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis.

Patent and Trademark Office brings trademark searches into the information age to aid researchers

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has launched a free online search of registered U.S. trademarks dating back to the late 1800s.

The service is part of a larger initiative to make trademark and patent information more accessible, says Jane Myers. director of the Office for Patent and Trademark Information.

Trademark text went online in August. Images followed in November, along with text of patent information. Patent images are expected to be completed in March 1999, as the project proceeds on schedule. Myers says. When finished, the 21 million document pages will be the largest reservoir of patent and trademark data available -- all free on the Internet.

Before, trademarks could only be searched at government libraries or by paid services.

Nevertheless, the Trademark Database has limitations. The fact that a mark is not present in the database does not necessarily mean it is not being used as a trademark. Plans call for updating the data on a two-month cycle, but the database doesn't include applications filed during the last few months before the program went online.

Perhaps more important, because federal registration is not required to establish trademark rights, two major categories of rights that should be included in comprehensive searches are not in the database.

Common law rights to a trademark arise from actual use of a mark. Generally, the first to either use a mark in commerce or file an intent-to-use application with the Patent and Trademark Office has the ultimate right to use and registration. Common law searches involve checking Yellow Pages. industrial directories and similar resources.

Also excluded from the database are international trademarks, a complicated and increasingly important category.

Though researching international marks may not be necessary for some small local businesses, it is critical for companies interested in doing business globally.

There is no worldwide consensus on intellectual property laws, and national trademark offices employ widely different registration processes and offer different levels of protection, says Monika Carter Laws, a spokeswoman with the International Trademark Association, which monitors trademark activities in 145 countries.

Efforts to harmonize national trademark laws and promote international cooperation are under way, however.

For example, the Madrid Agreement, administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, permits an owner to register trademarks in a number of countries by filing one application, and is generally regarded as successful and relatively inexpensive.

Some features of the Madrid Agreement, however, have been unacceptable to countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. The Protocol to the Madrid Agreement, concluded in 1989, addresses these issues, but the United States was not among the 35 countries to ratify the protocol.

Because of the new trademark database's limitations and the complexity of intellectual property laws, Myers strongly recommends an intellectual property lawyer for trademark matters. …