Naming your brand is serious stuff. There’s a lot that goes into the naming process, and once you’ve landed on the perfect name, there are serious considerations for how to optimally protect that name. We hear a lot of crazy talk around here from well-meaning business owners who have decided to forgo trademark registration in favor of registering a DBA. While registering a DBA may seem like a less cumbersome, less expensive way to protect your brand name than registering a trademark, the truth is that DBAs and trademarks are not interchangeable. In fact, registering a DBA offers you little to zero protection for your brand name.
Sigh. We know. The truth hurts. Allow us to explain the difference between DBAs and Trademarks so you can make an educated decision about the best way to protect your brand name.
What is a DBA?
DBA—“doing business as”—is essentially a fictitious name (sometimes called a “trade name”) that a business may register in order to do business as that name. (See what we did there? Pretty logical stuff, right?) DBAs aren’t mandatory. Their necessity depends on the name under which your business was originally registered and the name under which you would like to actually do business as. (ß We sacrificed proper grammar for that one.)
Not all states require DBAs, btw. But for those that do, here’s the deal.
You need to register a DBA if:
- You are a sole proprietor and you want to do business as anything other than your real name. For example, if your name is Otis Otington (You must have super cool parents, btw.), but you want to do business as, for example, “O. Master Flash,” you would register your business thusly: Otis Otington, doing business as O. Master Flash. For sole proprietors, DBAs are necessary even if you aren’t planning to do business with a super flashy name like our pal Otis. So, if your name is John Smith (our condolences), and you want to do business as John Smith Love Coach, you would need a DBA for that as well.
- The same pretty much goes for existing Corporations or LLCs. If your articles of incorporation were filed under Crazy Mango Pants, LLC, but you came to your senses and decided it was better to do business as Crazy Banana Pants, LLC, you would need to register a DBA for Crazy Banana Pants, LLC. For the record, we totally agree that pants look way better on bananas.
What is a Trademark?
Registering a trademark gives you, as the owner of the mark, exclusive use over that mark as the identifier of the source of goods/services sold under that mark. You may also know that your brand name is associated with a lot of goodwill—a very valuable commodity, btw—and trademark registration protects that goodwill. Unlike DBAs, trademarks aren’t really concerned with how your business was formally registered with your state. You can register your sole proprietorship as Otis Otington, but if you pretty exclusively use “O. Master Flash” in connection with the goods and services you sell, you would register your trademark for O. Master Flash. (You might also want to register a DBA as O. Master Flash, but for different reasons.)
So, what’s the freaking difference already?
DBAs are what you need to legally do business under the name of your choice, if you didn’t originally incorporate under that name (for Corporations or LLCs), or if the name is something other than your real name (for sole proprietors). DBAs offer zero protection for your brand name in terms of prohibiting its use by others. DBAs simply allow the Otis Otingtons of the world to do business as O. Master Flash (ie, sign contracts, send invoices, etc.) without upsetting state authorities.
Trademarks, on the other hand, do prohibit the use of your registered mark by others. Trademarks ensure that no one else can sell goods/services (at least not related goods/services) under your mark. This means that all of the hard work that you, and Otis Otington, have put into developing your brand and generating goodwill around your name will benefit only you. In short, trademarks offer protection for your brand, by prohibiting others from using your mark, while also identifying the source of goods/services you sell. DBAs also identify the source of goods and services you sell, but offer no protection for your brand name.