What Is the Difference Between a Trademark and a Service Mark?

Your brand’s intellectual property (IP) will likely be the most valuable asset you own. It distinguishes your products and services from competitors and helps establish your brand. When registering these properties, though, you may come across the terms “trademark” and “service mark.” What are the differences between these two types of marks, and how can they affect your brand?

This guide will help you better understand the differences between trademarks and service marks. And if you still need assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to our Chicago intellectual property lawyers today. We can help simplify the trademark registration process and defend your brand’s intellectual property on your behalf.

Trademarks vs Service Marks

Trademarks and service marks are essentially the same thing. They both convey that you’re using a mark — such as a name, word, symbol, phrase, or another trademarkable device — as a brand identifier. The main difference is that trademarks signify that your company offers products, and service marks signify that you offer services.

The process for registering these intellectual properties is the same for both, and once registered, each provides the same legal protections. Regardless of which category your brand falls under, your trademark application must clearly state the products or services on which your mark will be used. You must also show that your mark has been used in commerce — regardless of whether you’re seeking a trademark or service mark.

What's the Registered Symbol for Service Marks?

Due to the lack of significant differences between trademarks and service marks, you’ll often hear both referred to simply as “trademarks.” This is true whether folks are discussing trademarks in passing conversation or if intellectual property litigation is in progress. There are a few noticeable differences between these two, however, and one is the trademark symbol used prior to registration.

Before a mark is registered with the USPTO, you can only use an unregistered trademark symbol to designate protected status. For trademarks, this symbol is TM — for service marks, it is SM. Once your brand identifiers are registered, however, you should use the registered trademark symbol (i.e., ®) for both. Do not use this symbol until your mark is fully registered. Doing so is illegal.

Can You Have Trademarks and Service Marks?

While the differences between trademarks and service marks are minimal, entrepreneurs often still wonder if they can have both. Once a mark is registered and you’re using the appropriate symbol, there is no discernable difference between these two types of marks. Only what your brand provides to consumers distinguishes between the two, and if you choose to provide both services and products, that is perfectly acceptable.

The important thing to remember is that you may need to file under multiple trademark classes in such situations. For instance, a company that sells ventriloquist dolls may need to file under Trademark Class 28 — but if they also provide ventriloquism classes, they will need to file under Class 41. Clearly, the distinction between trademarks and service marks can be complicated at times. Our law firm can help you navigate these complex issues.

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