Dear Gritty VA:
I have a question regarding my business name. I started my business on August 17, but just found out that there is another Virtual Assistant business with a name similar to mine. I know that this probably won’t matter, but I am in one state and she is in another. My long term goal is to go international, but right now, I am concentrating on local clients. By the way, I have business cards, a business license, etc. Should I be concerned about this? If so, what do you suggest I do? Thank you in advance for your advice. –FT
Unfortunately, I don’t think my answer is one you were hoping to hear.
You are right in assuming that it doesn’t necessarily matter that you are in two different states. This is especially true in our industry where we don’t have any geographic boundaries from each other. If the person with the pre-existing, established use of the name takes their business interests seriously and is intent on protecting their trade name rights, you could be in for some legal problems and expenses. In fact, the law governing these things requires them to defend their rights or they forfeit them.
When you’re in business, there are lots of important things you have a responsibility to understand. They may be boring, complicated and not so fun, but they are imperative nonetheless because they protect us, keep things fair and give us some parameters to ensure we can all play nice and get along with each other. So the first thing I would advise you to do is go to USPTO.gov and study up on the trademarks and copyrights information.
I’m going to post some info we share in our Virtual Assistant forum on this topic and why it’s in your best business interest to come up with your own unique business name:
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO FIND YOUR OWN UNIQUE NAME
In our industry, we have no geographical boundaries from each other. Therefore, having a unique business name is even more important. When starting a Virtual Assistant business, beyond just the impoliteness of stepping on a fellow Virtual Assistant’s toes, here is why it’s important for you to have a unique business name:
1. You don’t want to get sued. A Virtual Assistant with established first use of an existing trade name has legal rights and can sue you for infringement, and possibly even damages. It costs a lot of money, time and energy to defend yourself. If you lose (which you can by either default or because the Court finds in the complainant’s favor), it can cost even more. Every business has a right to defend its rights and its turf if it feels it’s been infringed upon (likewise, every business has a duty and self-preserving interest to make sure it is not infringing). It’s just not a ball of wax you want to even potentially find yourself in.
2. It’s not a great way to be welcomed into the community. The Virtual Assistant world is very small and tight-knit community. People will know you are infringing on one of their comrades. How do you think they will look upon you? And imagine if it were you… how would you feel if someone new came into the industry and started using your business name, the one you’ve been using for X years and around which all your identity and marketing has been based? It would not feel good. Trust, good will and polite society can not exist where we allow this kind of thing to occur. It’s just not cool.
3. You don’t want to be confused with another Virtual Assistant business. It’s going to be really important to differentiate yourself from everyone else, and that includes having a unique business name and identity. It doesn’t do you any good to be using someone else’s established business name if traffic and name recognition is going to be diverted to someone else who was there first.
4. You don’t want to have to redo everything (e.g., web site, marketing materials, etc.). If you are caught infringing, you can be compelled to relinquish domains, destroy or hand over other intellectual property, and it’s going to be a lot of work and more money to start all over again.
STEPS TO ENSURING YOU DO NOT INFRINGE
So, what do you do? A bit of homework is in order. To make sure you come up with a unique name and do not infringe on the established trade name rights of any of your colleagues, there are things you can and should do:
1. Search Virtual Assistant directories. Make sure no one else is using the same or similar name already.
2. Search the uspto.gov database. Check to see that no one else is already using the same or similar trade name. Bear in mind that while federally registered trade names have even further protections and recourses, a name does not have to be registered there to be protected. Changing a letter or word is not going to help you if the name can be considered to be substantially the same and/or would still create confusion.
3. Conduct a search for the name (or the predominant unique identifier) in several different search engines. Use Google, MSN, Yahoo, Chrome and any others you might think of. Better to be thorough now than sorry later. Example: If you want to use Dizzy Virtual Assistance, you should search for “Dizzy Virtual Assistant,” “Dizzy Virtual Assistants,” “Dizzy Business Support, “Dizzy Administration, “Dizzy Administrative,” etc. If another VA is using “Dizzy” in their name, just fuhgetaboutit.
WHAT TO DO NEXT
Once you find a name that is unique and that in no way can be confused with another Virtual Assistant’s existing, established trade identity, you’re home free. If you think you were the first to use the name, contact the other Virtual Assistant and see if you can work things out. If you know you were not the first, contact the VA(s) with the same or similar name. See how they feel about it. And then consult an attorney about whether it would be a wise course of action to pursue the name anyway, what the possible ramifications are, and what it might cost to defend or protect yourself.
If you’re a Virtual Assistant, you simply must take part in the 2009 Virtual Assistant Industry Survey. Stand up and be counted!