• English

12.03.2024 | by Lili

 

Trademark and copyright symbols explained

 


Highlights

 

  • TM indicates an unregistered trademark, while SM means the same for service marks, 
  • R in a circle points to a registered trademark
  • C in a circle indicates copyright while P in a circle refers to a sound mark

 

 

IP rights, including trademarks and copyrights are essential for protecting your brand’s intellectual property. But how can people recognise if something is trademarked, copyrighted, or protected by any other means?

 

Over the course of history, various countries have come up with various ways to mark IP protected objects or content. In Germany, for example, the abbreviation “ges. gesch.” (short for gesetzlich geschützt, meaning legally protected) may be printed on products while in France, “Marque déposée” (trademark) has the same effect.

 

The most commonly seen trademark symbols, however, stem from the American legal system. It’s easy to see how ™, ® or © became so popular: US brands use them all over the world, which means that these symbols have spread across to other countries and may be seen even on local products.

 

Let’s take a look at the most commonly used trademark and copyright symbols.

 

 

Trademark

A trademark is a “recognizable insignia, phrase, word, or symbol that denotes a specific product and legally differentiates it from all other products of its kind.” Products and content protected by a trademark belong to a specific person or company and can only be used by the right holder, or with the right holder’s authorisation.

 

Trademarks can be registered or unregistered. The former means that the rights holder registered their trademark with the competent authority of their country (in case of the US, the USPTO), while the latter indicates that no such registration took place.

 

Contrary to common belief, registration is not a prerequisite for a trademark to become valid. Rights holders of unregistered trademarks enjoy the protection of common law, and may use the ™ symbol, (the letters TM in superscript or subscript) to indicate their claim to the product or content.

 

Screenshot of starbucks.com, edited by globaleyez to visually emphasise the mermaid logo with a ™ symbol in the bottom right corner

Screenshot of starbucks.com, edited by globaleyez to visually emphasise the mermaid logo with a ™ symbol in the bottom right corner

 

 

Screenshot of a Nintendo Switch product listing on nintendo.com, displaying the ™ symbol in the bottom right corner

Screenshot of a Nintendo Switch product listing on nintendo.com, displaying the ™ symbol in the bottom right corner

 

Unlike copyrights or patents, trademarks don’t have a fixed expiration date. In fact, trademarks are valid as long as they’re used in commerce to mark products or services as stemming from the rights holder.

 

 

Registered trademark

Although, as noted before, registering your trademark is not a prerequisite for protection, brands with a registered trademark may enjoy some additional perks.

 

These include a feature in trademark databases, a stronger case if you need to take fraudulent users to court, a wider area of trademark protection (even in foreign countries.) The right to use the registered trademark is visually represented with the well-known R in a circle symbol.

 

Similarly to ™, it’s most often used in superscript like this: your product name®, or subscript like this: your product name®.

Screenshot of starbucks.com, edited by globaleyez to visually emphasise Starbucks’s brand name with an ® symbol in superscript

Screenshot of starbucks.com, edited by globaleyez to visually emphasise Starbucks’s brand name with an ® symbol in superscript

 

Screenshot of https://www.coca-cola.com/us/en displaying the brand name with an ® symbol in superscript

Screenshot of https://www.coca-cola.com/us/en displaying the brand name with an ® symbol in superscript

 

Take a look at the Starbucks screenshot here and in the previous section. Interestingly, it seems that Starbucks has registered its brand name with the USPTO, but refrained from doing so with its mermaid logo.

 

Registered trademarks have to be renewed at regular intervals (in the US, every 10 years).

 

 

Copyright

As its name suggests, copyright indicates the right of a person or entity to be identified as the creator/owner of a piece of intellectual property. This may include works of art, books, songs, movies, websites, brand logos, and much more.

 

Contrary to trademarks, copyrights tend to expire after a finite period of time. The actual period of protection varies from country to country. According to current US legislation, a copyright in America expires 70 years after the death of the protected work’s creator.

 

See what happens when a copyright expires!

 

Your copyright exists from the moment your work is complete and takes up its tangible fixed form (i.e. your book is written or your brand logo first appears somewhere.) Just like in the case of trademarks, it’s not compulsory to register your copyright.

 

However, registration definitely has some advantages. Registering your copyright makes it appear in the public record, and makes you eligible to initiate a lawsuit for infringement as well as receive statutory damages and attorney’s fees.

 

A copyright symbol is the letter c in a circle, like this: ©. It usually appears on the back of the title page in a book in a section called imprint that contains the year of publication, the name of the right holder, the publisher, etc.

 

It may also appear on websites, in the footer section to indicate the name of the right holder and the year of publication.

Screenshot of starbucks.com’s footer displaying the copyright section

Screenshot of starbucks.com’s footer displaying the copyright section

 

Is it obligatory to feature this part on a website? No, not at all, the copyright would still stand without the display. However, websites tend to include a section like this, simply because other sites do so as well.

 

 

Sound mark: phonogram

Phonograms, or sound marks protect the copyright of audio recordings. Similarly to other types of media, sound recordings enjoy copyright protection from the moment they’re recorded in a tangible medium. However, just like in the case of “regular” copyright, right holders can register their rights for additional advantages.

 

The symbol for a sound mark is a P in a circle, like this: ℗.

 

Regarding expiration, the same rules tend to apply to the sound mark as to general copyright. In the US, the sound mark expires 70 years after the death of its creator. If there are more people involved in the creation of a recording, the last collaborator’s death is the starting point of the 70 years.

 

Related topics

Copyright infringements by AI?

 

Public domain and the loss of a copyright

 

Can smileys and apples be trademarked?

 

Service mark

Service marks belong to the family of trademarks. In general, service providers can use a service mark to distinguish their brand from competitors. Just like trademarks, service marks can be registered or unregistered.

 

Before (or without) registration, a service provider typically uses the SM symbol, the letters SM in superscript or subscript beside their logo and/or brand name.

 

After registration, service providers are entitled to use the regular registered trademark symbol, the ®. All the rules applying to a registered trademark will become valid for a registered service mark as well, including the regular renewal obligations.

 

Conclusion

Trademark and copyright symbols are essential for brands to mark their IP rights. Unfortunately, these signs are often not enough to deter fraudsters from infringing on your IP rights, which means that you have to take steps to oversee and enforce your rights.

 

Contact us and let’s create a comprehensive strategy to safeguard your IP rights both on- and offline!