Trademarking the Name of a Band

Most musicians know about copyrights. Without copyright protection, other musicians and music companies might claim your songs as their own, reap profits from them, and even sue you if you perform your own compositions. Many musicians are not aware that a similar calamity can befall a band that does not properly establish and protect trademark rights in the name it chooses.

Band names and logos as trademarks

A trademark is any word, phrase, symbol, sound or design that is used in commerce to identify the source of goods or services. Music recordings are goods, and entertainment is a service, so a name that is used to identify the source of a song or the musicians who perform it is a trademark. For example, the name, “Smashing Pumpkins” is a trademark that is used to identify a particular band’s sound recordings and musical performances. It is also a trademark for posters and shirts displaying that phrase.

Copyright law does not protect names, titles or short phrases. Registering a copyright for a collection of songs with the band’s name on the cover may protect the band’s rights of authorship in the music, but it will not protect the band’s name. For that, trademark registration is needed.

Logos are a special case. If a logo is an original work, then the artwork may be copyrighted. When it is used to identify a particular band, then it may also be protected as a trademark.

How trademark rights are created

Trademark rights are created by using a name or symbol in connection with goods or services to identify the source of the goods or services. Merely deciding on a name for a band is not enough, even if the name is written down on a piece of paper, witnessed, notarized, and kept in a safe deposit box. Trademark rights come into being only when the band takes the further step of putting the name on a product (such as a CD, or a digital recording that is made available for download on the Internet) or an advertisement for the product, or publicly performs or advertises its entertainment services under the name.

Trademark rights can come into existence without registration. As between two bands with the same name, the first to use the name in commerce to identify the source of their musical products or services (such as affixing the name to a CD that is offered for sale, or using the name in an advertisement or flyer for a concert performance by the band) will be the one with trademark rights.

Why registration is important

Since trademark rights are linked to first use, some websites offer to protect a band’s name by simply listing the name in a band name registry. While this can generate some evidence of use, it is not determinative of the issue, and it is not sufficient for trademark protection. Only registration with a state or federal trademark office will establish a prima facie case or a legal presumption of trademark ownership.