In the United States trademarks are often followed by a symbol, such as a small ® or a small TM? Each symbol indicates to the consuming public information about the trademark rights that are associated with the specific trademark that the ® or TM symbol is attached to.These symbols have specific meaning in the United States and should only be used when appropriate.   

The rights associated with these marks are different from one another yet both originate from the Lanham Act, which is the federal piece of US law that is focused solely on trademark rights. In either case, the ® symbol and the TM symbol are meant to notify potential infringers that the trademark associated with the symbol is a claimed trademark.

What The ® Symbol Is All About

The ® symbol signifies that the trademark is a federally registered trademark in the US. This means that:

  1. The trademark owner has filed a trademark application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO),
  2. The application was reviewed by a trademark examiner to ensure that the mark is eligible for registration and won’t be confused with another trademark that is already in use in commerce,
  3. The trademark has been officially recorded in the Official Gazette, and
  4. The trademark owner has been issued a trademark registration certificate.

Once the trademark is registered with the USPTO, use of the ® symbol may commence. Federal registration of a trademark in the US affords the trademark with certain legal protections in the event that someone infringes on the registered trademark. Registration creates a presumption that the trademark owner in fact owns the trademark, and makes it possible for the trademark owner to seek treble, i.e., triple, damages in infringement actions.

What Does the TM Symbol Mean?

The TM symbol, on the other hand, indicates that the trademark is attached to is eligible for common law rights, but that the trademark has not been federally registered. Trademark owners that are in the process of having their trademark application reviewed by the USPTO are permitted to use the TM symbol, and when their trademark application is accepted the symbol associated with the now-registered trademark can be switched from the TM symbol to the ® symbol.

Trademarks that are not registered, and thus are indicated with the TM symbol, are not automatically legally protected in the same way that US registered trademarks are protected in the event of trademark infringement. Rather, a trademark that has an attached TM symbol requires additional criteria in order for US common law trademark protections to attach to the unregistered trademark. These additional criteria include that the trademark owner must prove that he or she was the first to use the unregistered trademark in commerce, and that the infringer’s infringement will confuse consumers as to the source of the trademarked good or product.