Much like traditional assets such as machinery or real estate, trademarks are assets that can be bought, sold, and transferred. Unlike physical assets, however, trademarks must be transferred in a purposeful way to ensure that the underlying meaning, or “goodwill”, is also transferred.
A trademark could be a word, a phrase, a symbol, or even a shape. However, one thing all different forms of trademarks share are that they represent a single source. They are essentially a shortcut for consumers to bring to mind a company’s quality, customer service, and even values, at a glance. A trademark only has value because of the impact it has on consumers and the exposure consumers have had to that brand.
When transferring a trademark, simply allowing another company to use the trademark is not enough. You must transfer not only the right to the word or image, but also the underlying goodwill behind the trademark.
It is crucial that trademark owners properly transfer, or “assign” their trademarks to avoid delays, confusion, or worst of all, a break in title that could invalidate the earlier use of the trademark and ruin the value of the trademark.
A Trademark Assignment Transfers Trademark Rights
A proper trademark assignment is not just a transfer of registration the way many business assets are transferred. There is a wording specific to trademark assignments known as a “transfer of goodwill” – this is written fully as a transfer of “(1) all the property, right, title and interest in and to the Trademark including all common law rights connected therein together with the registrations therefor for the United States and throughout the world together with the goodwill of the business in connection with which the Trademark is used and which is symbolized by the Trademark; (2) all income, royalties, and damages hereafter due or payable to Assignor with respect to the Trademark, including without limitation, damages, and payments for past or future infringements and misappropriations of the Trademark; and (3) all rights to sue for past, present and future infringements or misappropriations of the Trademark.”
By including those clear rights and benefits, trademark owners make it clear that all the rights associated with the trademark are now the new owners’, including enforcement rights, royalty rights, and licensing rights. However, all responsibilities are also to the new owners, such as ensuring there is no confusion with another mark, that renewals are timely filed, and any misuse of a mark is monitored to ensure the quality assurance associated with the mark.
If the goodwill is not transferred, the new owner is essentially stating that they will not work to maintain the mark’s reputation among consumers.
Common Issues with Preparing and Filing Assignments
When filing an assignment, either current or in the past, the assignment requires:
- the proper names of owners – if business entities, then complete names of active business entities
- the date any transfer took place, whether in the past or on the date of signing
- the language above for all goodwill and interest and rights to sue for past infringement
- signatures of both the assignor and assignee – or qualified representatives of those entities
This may seem simple, but when completing a trademark assignment, it is important to understand why each of these items are needed in order to ensure that the transfer is done correctly. The mere fact that the USPTO accepts a recordation of an assignment does not mean it is valid.
One common pitfall of attempting to file an assignment yourself is mixing up assignor or assignee, writing the wrong owner, or assigning the mark to an individual and not a business entity. Before assigning a trademark, ensure that you consider why the transfer is taking place.
- You may be transferring a trademark from one company you own to another as a restructuring of assets, such as a holding company or a change in tax status.
- You might have sold the business and all underlying trademark rights in the business name.
- You may be transferring a mark according to a will or bankruptcy.
- You may be transferring from your name, personally, to a newly created entity
All of these situations have their own nuances and it is easy to confuse who owns the rights with who is receiving them. No matter what, ensure that your assignment matches the owner on the trademark registration. Sometimes a trademark might change hands two or three times, with a few corporate name changes in the middle. You should be able to draw a straight line from the original owner to the new owner, and each step must be documented with the USPTO to ensure the recordation is valid. It might be a multi-step process involving multiple parties and, while complicated, it is essential that the ownership and chain-of-title are both correct.
Another common pitfall occurs when filing other documents, such as renewals. The filer is required to sign a sworn statement that the owner is correct. If the old owner files a renewal in the name of the old organization, the owner may have made a sworn statement that it was the owner of the mark, which could cause delays or even prejudice the registration in future proceedings.
Similarly, if the new owner files, they cannot simply change the name in the renewal. This will cause significant delays, as they will need to prepare an assignment and record it with the USPTO’s assignment branch before the renewal can be filed. If close to deadlines, this could get extremely complicated and cause additional fees or potential loss of rights.
Trademark assignments are an important part of the trademark lifecycle, as they allow trademark owners to buy and sell brands and further benefit from the goodwill represented by their brands. However, trademark owners should carefully consider the content of any assignment documents and ensure that they match the reality of the situation and the requirements of the USPTO.