What’s the difference between a service mark (SM) and a trademark (TM)?

So, you’re new to the whole intellectual property protection thing, but you want to make sure that the cool name/logo/design/phrase that you came up with for your business is protected—and being a frugal+savvy entrepreneur, you want to do it RIGHT. 

How you tell if you’re dealing with a service mark or a trademark? Essentially, a trademark is an identifier of products, while a service mark (or servicemark) is an identifier for services. Super simple, right? Let’s throw in some examples, just for good measure. 

Raise your hand if you like craft beer! Say you own one such brewery, and the name you chose for the place is SuperAwesomeBeerCo. Do you have an unregistered trademark, a service mark, both, or nothing? Well, (and here’s a GREAT legal answer for you): IT DEPENDS. Here are some generalities:

  • If SuperAwesomeBeerCo is providing the services of pouring you and your buddies a nice, cold brew and providing you with a cool place to hang, the mark is being used to identify services. You’ve got a service mark. 
  • If SuperAwesomeBeerCo is a label on the beer you’re drinking, which is being brewed in the next room over, the mark is being used to identify products—the craft beer. You’re dealing with a trademark. 
  • What if SuperAwesomeBeerCo is using that mark to provide you with its bartending services and as the name labeled on its brews? Then you’ve got both a trademark and service mark!
  • But note this: Coming up with a cool name for your business DOES NOT automatically give you rights to that mark. Just because you’ve got a state certificate to do business under that name doesn’t mean that SuperAwesomeBrewCo can’t later come paralyze you in your growth plans, or worse yet, force a rebrand. Registering your marks early at the state and federal levels is vital to your success if you want to scale like everyone favorite neighborhood superhero. 

You’ve got it! (mostly.) Now, here’s the catch—Often the term “trademark” is lazily and haphazardly used to refer to both trademarks and service marks. Go figure. 

So, you’ve learned to distinguish service marks from trademarks, YAY! That’s all, right? NOPE. You still need to register. Trademark and service mark registration can be confusing—and costly—if you don’t know what you’re doing. For that reason, you should seek out help from experienced intellectual property lawyers, like the cool people at Southtown Moxie. 10/10 recommend.