What to Know About a State Service Mark (Servicemark) Application: The Intellectual Property Application Series

In this ‘Intellectual Property Application Series,’ I’ll be discussing state service mark applications.  I’ll explain what a service mark is, what a state service mark is, and what a state service mark application and registration involves. This and more will help explain why service marks are an important tool, which protects both businesses and consumers.

Service Marks:

A service mark is a type of intellectual property that uniquely distinguishes and identifies the source of a service.  Like trademarks, service marks assert one’s right to use a specific word, phrase, logo/symbol, design, or a combination thereof, in the market.  Importantly, service marks and trademarks also convey an indication of the uniform quality expected of the services it identifies. This is also known as the “good will” of the service mark.   In general, service marks are secured by a company to advertise and distinguish their services from those offered by other companies.

The word “trademark” is generally used as an umbrella term to include both trademarks and service marks.  More specifically, service marks protect those marks that indicate the source of a service, rather than the source of a good. The protections provided, under either a service mark or trademark, vary slightly.  This is because they are specific to the classes of services/goods they protect. State rights extend to both trademarks and service marks.

The word “trademark” is also generally used as an umbrella term to include both commonly protected and formally protected trademarks/service marks. The protections provided by a service mark, and the obligations to maintain those protections, vary based on the type of service mark rights governing the mark. 

Common Law Service Marks:

Common law service mark rights can be claimed as soon as a mark is officially used in commerce, to market a service. There is no formal application or review process to obtain common law trademark/service mark rights. Instead, the first individual to use a mark in commerce is awarded the common law rights to the mark.  Appropriately, since common law rights are the easiest to claim, they provide the most limited of the service mark protections available and can be difficult to enforce. In contrast, federal and state service mark registrations provide a verifiable public record of the mark and its use in commerce. 

Federal Service Marks:

To obtain federal registration, an official Application for Federal Registration of a Service Mark is filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). An application for federal registration undergoes the most rigorous of prosecution procedures. The federal service mark prosecution process involves a review of the federal service mark application, to confirm adherence to the government filing requirements. Also during the prosecution process, the mark itself is examined to confirm it qualifies for federal protection, in accordance with strict government rules. Once the examination process is completed and the application is accepted, a formal Federal Certificate of Registration is issued and the mark is considered protected under federal laws.

Like state and common law rights, federal service mark rights are claimed based on the date the mark was first used in commerce. Only State and Federal service mark registrations provide a verifiable public record of the mark and its use in commerce. If a mark is not currently being used to market products/services, but there is a true intention to do so, the USPTO does provide the option of filing a federal intent-to-use based application. This option allows for an earlier application filing date and potential priority over competing marks, which could be crucial in a legal conflict over the service mark. 

State Registered Service Marks:

Like other types of service marks, state registered service marks are obtained in order to assert an owner’s right to use a specific word, phrase, logo/symbol, design, or a combination thereof, to market services to consumers and to protect against unauthorized use of the mark. To obtain registration in a specific state, an official Application for Registration of a Trademark or Service Mark, must be submitted to the relevant State Office, generally a Secretary of State’s Office. 

The application must meet the filing requirements of the state service mark office and strict filing procedures must be followed.  These requirements and procedures vary based on the State Office in question.  The service mark itself must meet the statutory requirements for registrations, governed by the Secretary of State’s Office with which registration is sought.

The protections and benefits provided by state registration can vary, but are generally governed by the Model State Trademark Bill and in accordance with the individual state’s laws.   These protections are limited to the boundaries of the state in which the mark is used. The enforcement of the mark is also limited to the registered State’s boundaries. 

State registration provides an official, verifiable, and public record of your ownership of a mark and the details of its use.  Specifically, the date of first use. Official proof of ownership and the ability to verify details of a mark’s use could prove invaluable in enforcing the rights to a mark or defending against accusations of infringement on another’s mark. The fact that the registration is made a part of the public record gives notice to the public that the mark is in use and formally protected. The public record can also be searched by those performing a clearance search, decreasing the likelihood for inadvertent infringement. 

The Trademarks Division of the individual Secretary of State’s Offices cannot provide legal advice to customers. They recommend that an attorney be consulted for any questions regarding protecting a mark or infringement upon a mark. Sound legal advice can help ensure you understand and achieve the specific legal goals intended to be gained by filing for protection or taking action to defend a mark. 

State Service Mark Clearance Search:

The first important step, before using or attempting to register any type of service mark, is to investigate the potential mark and confirm if it is uniquely distinctive and not already in use by another company. It is the responsibility of the potential service mark owner to confirm that their intended mark is not already in use.  For this, a service mark clearance search can be performed. 

A clearance search involves a dedicated search of currently used marks. A search can be attempted by an individual, but a formal search is conducted by a patent attorney, patent agent, or a person who specializes solely in these types of searches.  The USPTO even has some advice about hiring a private trademark/service mark attorney. Thrive IP® is readily available to assist in service mark clearance searches, prosecution of service mark applications, and many other services related to maintaining and enforcing your service mark. 

To conduct a formal search, an experienced professional uses specialized tools and databases to compare the mark to the millions of published and registered applications.  These applications are found in the database of the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) of the USPTO and in the state specific State Trademark Office databases.  These databases also list both service marks and trademarks. A complete search would also include an internet search for common law marks used in online commerce. 

A clearance search is performed as part of the due diligence process, before a service mark is used by a business to market their services. Finding out if a mark is already in use or registered, could prevent a company from being sued for unintentional infringement of another’s mark. Avoiding a service mark litigation could not only save time and money, but also a company’s reputation.

Even the most in depth search may not find every similar mark that is being used in commerce. If a service mark dispute should arise, one factor considered is if appropriate steps were taken to avoid infringement of an existing mark.  Any claim to a service mark, registered or unregistered, can be put at risk if there is no proof that a proper clearance search was performed, prior to using the mark in commerce. Proof that an official clearance search was performed, prior to using a mark, can support a defense that an accusation of infringement was, at the least, not malicious. In the case where a proper clearance search was not performed, common law rights may supersede either state or federal service mark rights. 

State Service Mark Requirements:

After a chosen mark has passed a clearance search, there are specific requirements that must be met for a service mark application filing to be accepted, and for the mark itself to qualify for state protection.  The service mark application filing requirements are defined by the individual State Offices. To qualify for state protection via registration with a specific State Office, a potential registered mark must be distinctly unique to the individual business that is applying for its use in a specific state.  

The mark must also be in current use in commerce. Unlike federal registrations, no option is provided for filing an application with only an intention to use the mark. To demonstrate current use of a service mark, the Secretary of State’s Office requires the submission of formal specimens with examples of the mark in use.  An individual specimen is required for each class of services claimed in the Application for Registration.  

State Service Mark Application Filing and Prosecution:

To obtain registration in a specific state, an official Application for Registration of a Trademark or Service Mark must be completed and filed. Each state provides an application form specific to the individual state.  The completed form must be submitted, with related documents and fees, to the relevant state service mark office, generally a Secretary of State’s Office.  

The application form must meet the filing requirements of the State Office and strict filing procedures must be followed.  The service mark itself must also meet the statutory requirements for registrations, governed by the Secretary of State’s Office with which registration is sought. These requirements and procedures vary based on the State Office in question.

While the filing requirements of a state service mark vary by state, most requirements are held in common. A completed Application for Registration of a Service Mark would include the state specific application, at least one specimen showing an example of the current use of a mark, and an appropriate government filing fee. The application is used to describe the mark and how it is used, claim a date-of-first use, and provide specimens as examples of the mark in use.

In general, applications for state registration will require the application form to be signed and notarized by the service mark applicant.  The service mark applicant is the owner of the mark. The Applicant can be an individual, corporation, limited liability company, partnership, association, or other person. Only a single individual or business entity may claim ownership of a mark. If the applicant is a business, the application must also include the state in which the entity was organized. 

State service mark application forms also require a written description of the potential service emark. The description is required to include any wording and/or design elements of the mark claimed.  If the service mark is a logo, the company name, in addition to a description of the “look” of the logo, is expected. For filing an application to register a word mark, the descriptions would simply be the word(s) attempting to be registered. The descriptions of the mark must match exactly as it appears on the specimen of use provided. 

The application form further requires an indication of the Actual goods and/or services with which the mark will be used and an indication of the mode or manner in which the mark will be used. An indication of the mode/manner in which Actual services are used, would include indicating the mark would be used as a business name and an indication of Actual services would include, letterhead, website, advertising.

Still further, the application form requires an indication of the class of services the owner wishes to offer under that mark. Each Secretary of State’s Office categorizes their list of potential goods and services into numbered classes, which can then be claimed in the application. If a mark will be used as both a trademark and a service mark, separate applications are generally required for each type of mark. As a rule, a separate government fee will also be required for each class claimed and/or each application filed. 

Identifying trademarks and service marks by class helps to distinguish confusingly similar marks that are used to provide different classes of goods/services, among other things. Classes identify a mark’s use in commerce. Specifically, the use of a mark identifies it and the mark’s class identifies its use.  Each class is simply a broad description of how the use of a mark is intended.  The literal description of the mark and its use(s), discussed previously, must be more limited than the broad class identification

Each class claimed will require a specimen of use to support the claim. A specimen of use is simply an example of proof of the mark as actually used in trade. The submitted specimen(s) must match the provided description of the mark exactly.  If the color of the mark is specifically being claimed, then the specimen must also be in color. 

The following specimens would be acceptable for a service mark:

 ■ 3 actual business cards or pieces of letterhead showing the mark in connection with the service; OR 

■ 3 identical photos of a sign; OR 

■ 3 original brochures about the service (including menus); OR 

■ 3 advertisements for the service (including advertisements from newspapers or magazines); OR 

■ 3 color print-outs of the mark used on the applicant’s Website; OR 

■ 3 identical photographs that show the mark as used in advertising the service (e.g. photos of a billboard). 

Some state service mark application forms will request that the applicant provide information on any previously filed applications for federal service mark or trademark registration. The requirement extends to indicating if an application to register any portion of the mark was ever submitted.  Complete information regarding the filing date, serial number, and status of each application is required. If the application was refused or was not registered for some other reason, an explanation is necessary. 

In general, applications for state registration will require a Declaration of Ownership. This standard statement will be part of the application form itself and must be carried out in the presence of a notary. By signing the application form, the Applicant agrees to all of the language in the “Declaration of Ownership,” and affirming that all information given is truthful.

Declaration of Ownership: Applicant herewith declares that he/she has read the above and foregoing application and knows the contents thereof and that the facts set out herein are true and correct, that the specimens of the mark submitted are true and correct, that the applicant is the owner of the mark, and that the mark is in use. Additionally, to the knowledge of the person verifying this application, no other person has registered this mark either federally or in this State, or has the right to use this mark in its identical form or in near resemblance as to be likely, when applied to the goods or services of another person, to cause confusion or to cause mistake or to deceive. 

State service mark applications can only be submitted by mail or in person.  The majority of State Offices do not offer an option to file applications online. In contrast, the USPTO provides a significant discounted filing fee for submitting an electronic application.  State application filing fees are non-refundable. 

State Service Mark Application Rejection:

To be accepted, the service mark application must be completed in its entirety.   An application missing any part of the required information in the application form or filed with inappropriate specimens will be rejected. Any rejected applications are sent back to the applicant with a notice of why the application was rejected. The office will give a short window to reply, generally 15 days, for the applicant to amend and resubmit the corrected application. If the applicant fails to respond with corrections to the application before the deadline, then the application will be deemed abandoned and the application fee forfeited. A new application with a new fee will need to be submitted to restart the application process. 

State Service Mark Registration Certificate and Maintenance:

After the completed Application for Registration of a Trademark or Service Mark is reviewed for adherence to filing requirements and the mark is accepted, the Secretary of State’s Office will issue a formal State Service Mark Registration Certificate.  The official Certificate of State Registration is specific to the state in which the application was filed. The protections and benefits provided by state registration are in accordance with the individual state’s laws. 

Further, the Certificate of State Registration certifies that the service mark is registered in relation to the class(es) of services listed on the certificate.  To maintain the rights offered by the state registration of a service mark, the mark must continue to be used in relation to the specific class(es) represented on the official State Registration Certificate. 

Unlike the USPTO, the Secretary of State’s Offices do not provide a procedure for filing a request for cancellation of a registered service mark, citing non-use of the mark.  Even so, the protections provided by state registration are based on the mark’s current use in commerce.  The owner of a state registered service mark must ensure that the mark is in use in relation to the registered services, as detailed on the state Registration Certificate.

A registered service mark must also continue to be in use, to be maintained. Specific maintenance procedures must also be filed, in order to keep the service mark enforced. The maintenance requirement prevents service marks from exclusion from registration, without actually being in current use. 

To maintain a state service mark registration, you must continue to use the mark in connection with the goods/services identified in the registration, and occasionally file an Application for Renewal of a Trademark or Service Mark. The time frame for this maintenance is every five years after registration.  The state service mark registration can be renewed continuously. 

State Service Mark Rights:

The acceptance of a service mark for registration by the Office of the Secretary of State provides the owner with a right to use such mark in the specific state of registration.  The protections extend specifically to the mark, as registered, and its use in relation to the goods and/or services identified in the registration. State registration also provides the owner the right to file a civil suit with the appropriate state court, in order to enforce the granted service mark rights. 

To signify ownership of a state registered mark, it is appropriate to use the standard symbol “SM” (service mark) or “TM” (trademark), but their use does not confer legal rights.  Legal rights cannot be claimed, because the Secretary of State does not play any role in regulating the use of trademarks/service marks or in prosecuting their misuse, rather the Office is strictly ministerial. 

State registered marks are not permitted to use the registration symbol (®), which indicates federal, rather than state registration. It is a violation of federal law to use the (®) federal registration symbol, if a federal service mark Certificate of Registration has not been issued for the mark.  

The Office of the Secretary of State is not required to search other state or federal registrations, internet domain names or other common law uses of the mark.  As such, State registration and the rights granted by that registration, may be “affected or preempted,” if another individual can prove prior use or registration of the mark. State governed  service mark protection is limited to the state in which the mark is used, unless it is used in interstate commerce. 

Each Secretary of State’s Office provides a public list of service marks and service marks currently registered with that specific Office. Once registered with a specific state, the service mark is added to that State Office’s list of registered marks. The Secretary of State’s Office does investigate the possession and distribution of counterfeit goods and the fraudulent use of registered trademarks and service marks.

State Service Mark Monitoring:

After a service mark is in use and/or registered, the market must be monitored for infringement. The service mark owner is expected to enforce their ownership or risk losing rights to the mark.  If infringement is suspected, a notice of the service mark rights should be sent to the infringer with the request to cease and desist. This cease and desist notice should, at a minimum, advise the infringer to stop the infringement, or expect further action. While it is not required, having an experienced legal team behind a cease and desist notice can help avoid the potential for the tables to turn.  A simple cease and desist notice can be justification for a defamation complaint, claim of extortion, or even material for a counter suit.

The service mark owner is responsible for monitoring and enforcing their rights, but third parties can be enlisted to assist. To ensure that a mark is being monitored correctly, we can assist in forming these trusted relationships and maintaining communication.  Additionally, if infringement is found, our team is here to help guide you through the task of service mark enforcement.

Note of Caution- Fraudulent Solicitations:

A service mark owner should be weary of solicitations from private companies requesting payments to maintain a service mark.  Some of these companies simply want to charge for attending to the service mark maintenance fee. Unlike a licensed attorney, these companies are under no obligation to continue to monitor a service mark after the initial maintenance fee is paid. It should also be noted that there are intentionally misleading or malicious entities that send solicitation letters to service mark owners.  These entities request payment without the intent of actually maintaining a service mark. In this case, if maintenance fees are not paid, the rights to a service mark will be lost, while the service mark owner believes their rights are still protected. To help identify service mark solicitors, the USPTO has included a list of potentially misleading notices.

State Service Marks – An Important Intellectual Property Tool:

State service marks are important in their ability to protect consumers and businesses alike.  They provide businesses with a way to protect their identity, reputation, and the goodwill associated with their services.  While the strongest protection for a service mark is provided through federal registration, state and common law rights still provide a service mark owner with important, but limited rights.      

The rules that govern service mark law enable businesses to compete efficiently and fairly.  Government service mark rules establish a standardized system for businesses competing in the market. Government guidelines for addressing service mark disputes are also integral to the success of the service mark system.

In addition, the laws governing service marks help protect consumers from deceit by counterfeit products or fraudulent companies.  Service Marks do this by signifying the goodwill and identity of a company. Consumers depend on service marks to convey the goodwill of a company, as this indicates an expected level of quality and/or trust.  The proper use of the service mark symbol (SM) is the best way to communicate to consumers that a legitimate service mark is in use.  If businesses could not prove and protect their reputation via service marks, it could be the consumers that pay the greatest price. 

Don’t leave a matter as important as your intellectual property to chance.  Willing help in the form of an experienced legal team is here and is just a call away.  Thrive IP® patent attorneys are located in Charleston, SC; Greenville, SC; and Knoxville, TN; Alexandria, VA and Smithfield, VA. Please contact us if you have an interest in filing a service mark application or other intellectual property services.