Trademarks and Service Marks - What's the Difference?

Registered trademark symbol
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Trademarks and service marks are two versions of a kind of intellectual property - knowledge property. The assert your ownership of these marks, logos, and slogans, and they help you protect them from being stolen.

Most businesses have some kind of identification that makes their business stand out, both for advertising purposes and for general business purposes. These identifiers are trademarks or service marks.

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is specifically a creation to identify a business product. A trademark can be any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination which is used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods of one company from those of others. In short, a trademark is a brand name. For example, a product which cleans windows might have "sparklebrite" and a sparkler as its trademark. The trademark may or may not include a logo (a graphic). 

What is a Service Mark?

A service mark is the same type of device as a trademark, but service marks distinguish the services of one company from those of another provider. Service marks are often slogans. For example, the service mark of a plumber might be "The Leak Fixers" with or without a distinctive logo. 

Is it a Product or a Service?

Service marks are sometimes confusing, and many products are bundled with services. For example, buying a car might mean you are also buying services, like maintenance or roadside assistance. For example, is McDonald's a service or a product? McDonald's the company is a service. Within that service - providing fast food - the company may have many products that are also trademarked. The Big Mac® is a trademarked product. 

The National Archives suggests one way to distinguish between a product or a service is to consider the customer. If the customer asks, "What can you make for me?" it's probably a product. (They also note that products include digital products.) If the customer asks, "What can you do for me?" it's probably a service. They include consulting, providing advice, training, and education in the category of services.

Do I Have to Register a Trademark or Service Mark? 

Intellectual property, sometimes abbreviated as "IP," is handled in the same way as other types of property, except that these assets must be registered somehow so it's clear who owns them, and to prevent others from using this property without permission or payment. You can use a trademark or service mark without registering it. But registering it protects it from issues if someone tries to use your mark or uses a similar mark. 

How Do I Register a Trademark or Service Mark? 

Trademarks and service marks are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. You can do the registration process yourself but it's complicated. You may go through the entire process only to find your application rejected because of a minor error. It's best to find an intellectual property attorney who can help you through the process. 

Before you register the trademark or service, you must be able to show that your business is the owner of the mark and that it is currently being used in your business.

To register a service mark, use the trademark process, designating the mark as a service mark for services. To show the use of the service mark, the USPTO says, use specimens such as "signs, photographs, brochures or advertisements that show the mark used in the sale or advertising of the services."

Trademarks and Service Marks as Intangible Assets

As noted above, trademarks and service marks are part of a subset of business assets called intellectual property - property that has value but has no tangible form. Intellectual property is considered intangible assets, for accounting purposes.

These marks are included on the business balance sheet as intangible assets, at the cost of acquiring them (including design costs, legal fees, and USPTO fees). Like other business property, trademarks and service marks can be bought and sold, or they can be licensed to others for things like apparel or advertising giveaways.

What is the difference between "TM" and "SM" and ®?"

The TM and SM designations are placed with trademarks and service marks to show that someone owns them. The "R" symbol designates a trademark or service mark that has been registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

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