How long does it take to receive a trademark registration once you apply for one to the US Patent & Trademark Office? According to trademark attorney Erik M. Pelton, “Each application is unique. No one can guarantee the outcome or the timing.” However, as he explains on his website, “the vast majority take somewhere around a year to reach registration or a final disposition.”
The process can be affected by many factors. For example, how skilled is the attorney handling the process? As with many professionals, expertise can vary from person to person. A seasoned trademark lawyer should be able to produce a well-crafted trademark application that would minimize the chances of triggering what is known as an “Office Action” from the USPTO. An Office Action signals an obstacle in the approval process or the application. An experienced attorney will not only be able to reduce the odds of an Office Action occurring but will know what to do when one does.
An example of an obstacle in the approval process may be a “descriptiveness finding.” The USPTO may refuse a trademark application if the trademark is deemed “merely descriptive.” A good trademark attorney can help avoid this finding at the very beginning by giving advice on the client’s choice for a mark. If a descriptiveness finding does occur, the attorney can then give advice on the options available for a response to the finding—along with, possibly, an estimate on how much additional time and cost could be added to the process.
Another obstacle that can seriously delay the registration process, and add greatly to its cost, is a third party challenge to a trademark application. Just how long a delay is possible is illustrated by the case of the Washington Redskins football team. A trademark application for the name was filed in 1992, but due to a series of legal challenges and appeals, the application did not receive approval till January of this year, more than 25 years later. Granted, this was an exceptionally long period of time for a final disposition to be reached, and ultimately it took a US Supreme Court decision last year that paved the way for the legal challenge to the Redskins’ trademark registration to be ended, but it illustrates how long the process can be when serious obstacles arise.
There are various types of trademarks. Some are more difficult to protect than others. A descriptive trademark is inherently weak, at least at first, because it may sound generic. The Weather Channel is an example of a descriptive trademark. Cartoon Network is another. Descriptive names may eventually gain strength and be protectable as trademarks, but it may take time and aggressive marketing. This type of mark must acquire a strong “secondary meaning” beyond its generic meaning for it to be effective as a trademark. A trademark attorney will know this and may even advise against a descriptive mark.
Another type of trademark is called arbitrary. It may have no apparent connection to the product or service it represents. Examples: Exxon, Kodak, Apple. Arbitrary names can gain great strength and be quite protectable. And while it may be relatively easy to obtain a registration for an arbitrary trademark, it may take time for it to become familiar enough to the public to be immediately associated with the product or service.
A type of trademark that falls between arbitrary and descriptive is called suggestive. Suggestive trademarks are somewhat descriptive because they are revealing, but usually in a creative way. Here are some good examples: Youtube, Groupon, Netflix. Some trademark attorneys feel that a suggestive trademark is best, especially for smaller businesses that do not have the time or money to spend on a large marketing effort.
In the final analysis, though an attorney can help avoid pitfalls in a trademark registration process, increasing the odds for an approval and saving time, no one can predict with certainty how long the registration process will eventually take. Or even if it will be approved.
Erik Pelton is a trademark attorney practicing in the Washington, DC, area. He is also a former examiner for the US Patent & Trademark Office.