Broadly, trademark law is concerned with the overlapping and conflicting uses of trademarks, service marks and trade dress by different businesses. More specifically, trademark law determines what happens if a business adopts a logo or product name that either is identical or very similar to a very well-known existing one, or is one that consumers are reasonably likely to confuse with similar names or logos already in use on related products or services.
The basic rules for resolving a dispute over who is entitled to use a trademark, service mark or trade dress in a given context come from decisions by federal and state courts (the common law). These rules usually favor whichever business was first to use the mark or trade dress. A number of additional legal principles used to protect owners against use of their marks or trade dress by others come from U.S. government statutes known collectively as the Lanham Act.
The Lanham Act also establishes the trademark registration system and provides for judicial remedies in cases of trademark infringement. In addition to the Lanham Act, most states provide for some means of registering trademarks and service marks (but usually not trade dress) with a state agency and allow for remedies in case of infringement.
Finally, federal and state courts have applied their own set of rules to activity deemed “unfair competition,” which usually occurs when one business uses another business’s name or service mark in a context that is likely to confuse the public. The main goal of an unfair competition lawsuit is to force the second user to modify its use of the name or mark, so that the original business will not lose customers due to confusion.
Trademark law also addresses treaties signed by a number of countries that make it easier to obtain international trademark protection.
Related terms: Inter-American Convention for Trademark and Commercial Protection; international trademark rights; Lanham Act; Madrid Arrangement on International Registration of Trademarks and Madrid Protocol; Paris Convention; prior registration countries; protection of marks under Lanham Act; protection of marks under state law and common law; Trademark Trial and Appeal Board; U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).