Social media giant Facebook recently filed a trademark for a brand of UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles. These are typically referred to as “drones,” although their design, usage, and function can vary widely. Although Facebook has expressed interest in using UAVs or drones in the past, for various purposes, this filing is notable because it means that Facebook is exploring the idea of a drone device meant for the consumer market.

By filing this trademark, Facebook is seeking protection for the “intent to use” the name in commerce at some point in the future – under U.S. trademark law, that point would have to be within a year of the mark’s approval. Since this application is still in the mid-stages of filing and potential approval, it’s unclear when such a device might be brought to market. More than timing, however, the key significance of the trademark filing is the potential for a consumer product.

Drones have been available to the public for several years and are becoming more widespread. Filing this application for a consumer-facing drone product likely means that Facebook intends to develop one that’s linked directly to its social media platform, to give people new and interesting ways to post to social media. It’s wise for them to file a trademark application at this early stage in order to secure and protect their brand name as related to this type of product. While Facebook is clearly a well-known and well-established brand name, when expanding into new industries or areas, the potential for trademark complications exists – especially for such a well-established brand where other businesses or individuals may try to illicitly benefit from the Facebook name.

Under trademark law, different companies may own marks for the same name if they are in disparate enough industries with no risk of confusing the public. By filing this trademark application, Facebook eliminates any chance of another company challenging their mark for a UAV on the basis that, for instance, Facebook has heretofore been associated strictly with software, while a drone product is primarily hardware and is therefore distinct enough from a social media network to merit a trademark challenge.

Again, that’s a strictly hypothetical situation. It serves to illustrate, however, the benefits of trademarks. Facebook, like any other company, is free to use and police a mark without obtaining a federal trademark registration.  That being said, by filing a trademark application they are establishing a priority date of usage, which is especially important when branching into a different area like consumer hardware, specifically drones. Filing a trademark means that, should any competitor or other business attempt to challenge their use of the mark in this context, the trademark application – pending its approval – serves as an implicit date of priority, without any further burden of proof on Facebook.

That’s an important lesson to remember for any growing business that expands its product line or service offering as it becomes more successful.  Facebook is making a logical progression from not only creating and running a social media network, but now, potentially, offering a way of connecting to it (rather than leaving that to other hardware like third party computers or smartphones). If your business is expanding, or is likely to expand, into other areas, it’s critical to keep your trademarks up to date, at as early a date as possible.

You may have read some speculation in the media about other ways that Facebook is interested in using drones or UAVs. For quite some time, they, along with Google, have expressed interest in creating unmanned aerial devices to provide wireless internet coverage to areas with limited access. More recently, some potential design elements of Facebook’s hypothetical wireless drone devices have come to light – specifically, their massive size, and the duration of time that they’d be able to fly – according to Facebook, months or years at a time.

These connectivity drones, however, if they come to fruition, would provide a service, spreading internet access to underdeveloped and underserved areas.  In this case, the application filed by Facebook is for a brand of drones – presumably one that any consumer could purchase.

By filing a trademark application for drones intended for sale to the general public, Facebook has given itself the legal leverage and protection to make a smooth transition into the consumer UAV market (which appears to be heating up lately). The trademark application and, if approved, registration, means that any legal challenge would likely fall flat– a great benefit when such a well-known and desired name is on the table, but a wise move for any business, regardless of size.