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What’s The Difference Between The ®, TM, And SM Symbols?

April 5, 2022

Maybe you’re curious about these symbols because you have seen them attached to brands or you’re doing some research as you start up a business. Either way, you’ve likely wondered, “What’s the difference between the ®, TM, and SM symbols? Are they important?”.

Pull up a seat and pull out your pen, we have so much knowledge to share on these symbols and how they are deeply impactful for legally safeguarding a brand’s identity. All of these symbols are tools that can help brands protect their name, logo, and slogan so they can ensure that their marketing stays unique and recognizable.

WHY DO THESE SYMBOLS EXIST?

To start, Let’s discuss some history and the evolution of legal protection for brands in the United States. While the government had been working to protect the intellectual property and designs of businesses since the 1870s, there weren’t specific protections for business names, logos, and slogans until 1946. 

It makes sense that the U.S. government created these legal safeguards in the same time period that television became America’s favorite activity. Around this time, bringing a TV into your home was suddenly doable for many families and the novelty drew everyone in! Of course, with all the programming came advertisements. 

Brands that used to promote themselves on regional billboards and the radio were now able to easily sell themselves in ad spots, competing against one another to captivate the eyes (and wallets) of America. The successful brands created customers overnight and every other brand sought to follow in their footsteps. Sometimes, they followed a little too closely and would often imitate other brands, hoping to grab some of their success.

As brand exposure from television grew, the demand for legal recourse if another business copied you also grew. Brands needed a way to keep their names, logos, and slogans unique and recognizable. Meet trademark registration.

From this need, the U.S. government developed a trademark registration system for brands to prevent consumer confusion. They also created specific ways of seeing if a brand’s name, logo, and slogan were registered and legally protected, a.k.a. trademarked. To provide utmost clarity (and reduce copycats saying, “Well I just didn’t realize they were legally protected!”) you can easily tell because a symbol will be next to a brand’s name, logo, and slogan if they are trademarked. So now, let’s answer, your question. “What’s the difference between the ®, TM, and SM symbols? Are they important?”

WHAT DOES THE ® SYMBOL MEAN?

The U.S. government created the ® symbol to show that a brand’s name, logo, and slogan are registered with them and legally protected against use by a similar or identical business. In order to use this mark, you must first register each of these elements (name, logo, slogan) with the government. Registration is an extremely important step in using the ® symbol. If you try to use this symbol without registering the name, logo, or slogan the ® is paired with, you can face extreme legal repercussions and possibly lose the right to protect your brand with trademarking.

WHAT DOES THE TM SYMBOL MEAN?

The U.S. government created the TM symbol for product brands that are working on trademarking their name, logo, or slogan to show they are in the process of getting official legal protection. This symbol alone can provide legal protection—if someone tries to copy whatever has the TM next to it, you have the authority to report them and that brand can get in trouble with the government.

WHAT DOES THE SM SYMBOL MEAN?

The U.S. government created the SM symbol for service-based brands that are working on trademarking their name, logo, or slogan to show they are in the process of getting official legal protection. This symbol alone can provide legal protection—if someone tries to copy whatever has the SM next to it, you have the authority to report them and that brand can get in trouble with the government.

The reason the government created the TM and the SM symbol for brands that are in the process of applying for legal protection is that trademarking is a long process. It can take around 12 months (and is currently even longer due to a surge in applications!). During that waiting period, the government wants to ensure your brand can easily show it has applied for legal protection and has taken a serious step in securing its name, logo, and slogan. Again, it’s that public declaration that this name, logo, and slogan belong to a brand and there’s no excuse for copying it.

Now, you don’t have to wonder, “What’s the difference between the ®, TM, and SM symbols? because we’ve got you covered. If you’re looking to trademark your name, logo, or slogan, learn all about the application process and why you shouldn’t attempt a DIY with LegalZoom. Ready to get started? We’d love to schedule a complimentary consult to hear all about your brand!

 

*This post is for general education and does not initiate an attorney-client relationship with us. We always recommend consulting a trademark attorney for your brand’s specific needs.*

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