Service Marks vs Trademarks – What You Need to Know for Your Startup


Service marks are a counterpart of trademarks, and the two are often used interchangeably. This blog post summarizes what you need to know about service marks.

What is a service mark?

In contrast to a trademark, a service mark brands, identifies and distinguishes a service, whereas a trademark achieves the exact same function, except for products. Thus, if your company provides consulting, then it is providing a service and a service mark would be appropriate. If your company instead produces widgets, then a trademark would be appropriate. Simple enough you may say and I agree; this is not too complex.

To add a wrinkle of complexity, service marks are often referred to as trademarks or just “marks,” but not vice versa. Because they are often used interchangeably, if you have a service mark such as the photo in this post, you could say that you have a trademark or a service mark since either classification is appropriate. If, however, you have a trademark for a tangible good, you could not say that you have a service mark and must solely use “trademark” or “mark” to describe it.

Another wrinkle of complexity is that a mark can be both a trademark and a service mark. If, for example, your consulting company whose service mark is CONSULT merges with a widget manufacturer whose trademark is WIDGETS, to form a widget consulting and manufacturing business with the new trademark WIDGECON, it could have either a trademark or a service mark since the newly formed business provides both services and products.

When to Use a Service Mark

We discuss the two other trademark notations or symbols: ® and TM in another post, and basically say that in order to determine whether you should use ® or TM, you should answer the question – Has your trademark been granted a federal registration certificate? The same question applies here, and the answer is nearly the same.

If your trademark has been granted a federal registration certificate, then it is recommended that you use ®, regardless of whether you have a service mark or a trademark. If you do not yet have a federal registration certificate for your service mark, then you should use either TM or SM, depending on whether your mark is a service mark or trademark.

How to Use a Service Mark

An unregistered trademark notation TM, is usually in subscript after the trademark itself, such as ExampleTM. In contrast, a non-federally registered service mark is in superscript, like this ExampleSM. Again though, we recommend almost all trademarks should be federally registered, so ® is the mark that you should be striving for, not TM or SM.

How to Obtain a Federally Registered Service Mark

How one goes about getting a service mark is almost the exact same as how one obtains a trademark. While one can have a service mark and not register it with the USTPO, registering with the federal government confers a number of advantages, and we advise almost all clients to register their services marks with the USPTO. The only main difference between obtaining a federally registered service mark versus a trademark is the type of specimen or examples that need to be submitted.


In conclusion

The take away of this article is that regardless of the notation, TM or SM, you should strive for the notation of a federally registered trademark, ®. Having your trademark on the federal register provides you with the greatest security that you need to protect your trademark. Please reach out to us today if you have any questions about protecting your trademarks or other types of intellectual property.

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