How to Trademark Your Personal Name
To trademark a personal name, consumers must be able to connect the name to products/services for sale, just like for non-name trademarks. Does the personal name conjure the mental image of its connected goods/services in the same way the Nike swish does? If so, it has “acquired distinctiveness” and has a good shot at receiving federal trademark registration.
In this article, we'll cover:
Steps to Trademark a Personal Name
The process for trademarking a personal name is the same as for trademarking any other word mark: you must use the name in commerce connected to your goods/services. But in order to have robust rights and a shot at federal registration, there are a few more steps you might want to take.
1. Determine if your name is a strong trademark
Trademark strength is determined by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The “lowest” strength that can typically be registered is descriptive. Descriptive trademarks include an element of the goods and services offered, like American Airlines®. Typically, a trademark that is descriptive is not considered strong. Personal names are often considered descriptive by nature, which means they need to acquire distinctiveness before they can earn trademark rights or be eligible for federal registration.
One way to determine if your name will make a strong trademark is by seeing if another brand is already using a mark close to yours. If your name is unique in the marketplace, distinctiveness may be easier to acquire.
2. Conduct a trademark clearance search
A clearance search is when you look for competing trademarks to determine if your trademark has a place in the market. Remember, for a trademark to be valid, it must not create likelihood of confusion—meaning it cannot confuse customers about who is providing particular goods/services. A clearance search should reveal whether a name like yours is already promoting goods/services related to yours, giving you a chance to decide what to do about it
3. Obtain written permission from the namesake
If you plan to register the name as a federal trademark, you also need written consent from the person (even if it’s you!) that you’re allowed to use the name in commerce. If your intention is to use the mark only as a common law mark, it can still be a good idea to document the person’s permission in case you need to prove consent down the line.
4. Use the name in commerce in connection to your goods/services
A trademark connects a product/service to a brand for consumers. For a personal name to be a trademark, it has to be associated with particular goods and/or services for sale—like a logo on a clothing tag or a spa brochure. You must use the name you want to trademark in potential sales with customers.
Interested in trademarking your name? Our Trademark Service has experts waiting to help!
How do I make my name a distinct trademark?
A distinct trademark is typically a strong trademark. Most often, strong trademarks are fanciful (made up words), arbitrary (unconnected words), or suggestive (hinting words). A distinct trademark has carved itself uniquely in the market to the point that consumers can automatically connect a particular good/service with the trademark and vice versa.
But if a personal name is usually a descriptive trademark, how can it be distinct?
There’s no one size fits all answer to this. The typical path is to use the name in connection to goods/services for a long time while growing the name’s brand. This is the case for many celebrities and their stage names, like Tina Turner, who famously requested to keep only her married-name-turned-stage-name in her divorce.
Sometimes the distinctness is not a result of celebrity, necessarily, but business notoriety—such as the case of John Deere, who created a self-scouring steel plow and founded his company with his own name. Through the popularity of his plow and other merchandise, his name was able to gain commercial secondary meaning, and was able to be trademarked.
Another option is adjusting the trademark itself to reflect something more specific, such as when Michael Jordan, whose name was considered too common to be trademarked on its own, instead trademarked it alongside his jersey number, “Michael Jordan 23.”
What type of trademark can my personal name be?
Your personal name trademark can be one of three types:
- common law trademark, which means it is unregistered with exclusive rights in the same geographical region as your business;
- state registered trademark, where you register with your state and your rights end at the state’s borders; or
- federally registered trademark, which is registered with the USPTO and has the most robust protections of the three.
Can I trademark my last name?
Trademarking a surname (or last name) follows the same general rules as trademarking a first name or a full name. As long as you can prove distinctiveness in the market, it has a good chance of being approved by the USPTO and/or holding up as a common law trademark.
Reasons to Trademark a Name
The main reason why people choose to trademark their real, legal name (or stage name) is because they want to prevent other people profiting off of their brand. This is often why celebrities trademark their names.
For example, actor Nicole Kidman trademarked her name. This came in handy when someone bought the domain “nicholekidman.com” in order to make money off people who were searching for the actor’s website. The typo—adding an “h” to the actor’s name—ensured collecting traffic from confused internet searchers.
Because Kidman had her name trademarked and part of federal trademark protection includes the protection against likelihood of confusion, the domain owner had no rights to profit off Kidman’s likeness. The domain was transferred to her.
Learn more how registered trademarks can protect you against cybersquatting.
Trademarking your name helps protect your brand image by giving you a decisive legal defense against those who would use your notoriety to get themselves a leg up. Particularly in the age of influencers, the ability to trademark your first and last name can be an important part of protecting your livelihood.
That said, it can be complicated to trademark a personal name because names are often considered non-distinctive. Having a distinct name goes a long way, as well as having a far-reaching brand. This is easy-peasy for famous names like Cher, Beyonce, and Oprah. For less iconic individuals with more common names, it can be hard to prove both distinctiveness and secondary meaning.
It is also less pressing to trademark your name if you are not a particularly well-known individual. If you aren’t a celebrity, there’s a lower chance of your name being misused specifically in this way. While Kelly Clarkson has reason to worry about people selling products under her name without authorization, most people don’t need to have the same concern.