Trademark and the Music Industry

A trademark is a creative or fanciful name or design, used to identify the owner of goods or services. Whereas copyright laws protect literary musical, dramatic, and other artistic intellectual property, trademark laws protect names, logos, or other (trade) marks associated with a business or individual.

The significance of a trademark is that it legally assures the owner’s right to use (and profit from) that trademark in association with the service or product he or she provides. The trademark also allows its owner to prevent others from using the same or a similar name or design. These exclusive rights are granted via the Federal Lanham Trademark Act, or by state trademark laws.

In the music industry, trademarks are most often used for the name of a record label or of a group, band, or artist. The trademark PolyGram Records, for example, identifies the corporate owner that manufactured U2’s records for many years. The trademark U2 identifies the band that provides musical entertainment services.

A record label’s name is often intended to convey the vision of the owner or appeal to a broad market (e.g., Maverick, Epic, Elektra, Universal, or Giant). Other names, such as Metal Blade or Rap-A-Lot, identify, in a creative way, the type of music the record label distributes. As a label grows, its name becomes associated with the quality of the artists it signs and records. This recognition gives value to the name or logo, which the label wants to protect as a trademark.

An identifying name, mark, or design can also be a very profitable piece of property for recording artists. It’s basic marketing: When consumers become familiar with a particular name and begin to associate it with a service or product they like, they are more likely to purchase the goods produced under that name. For example, it’s highly likely that, based on their familiarity with, and approval of, U2’s previous work, many people will purchase their next compact disc, even before hearing it. This type of blind purchase occurs most frequently with established names and adds considerable value to those names. A lot of records get sold simply by having a recognizable band name on a well-known record label.

Initial trademark rights are acquired through use of the name, mark, or design, either by affixing it to the product or by using it when advertising the product or service. Therefore, when your record label uses its label name and/or logo in advertisements for its services—specifically, the production and manufacturing of compact discs—the label acquires ownership or trademark rights to that name, mark, and/or design. This is important, because trademark laws prevent others from using a mark or name that is confusingly similar to the one(s) you already own.

You could even place the familiar “TM” (trademark) symbol in very small letters immediately following your label’s name or mark on compact discs, CD artwork, and print advertising. This will indicate to others that you are claiming trademark rights to that name or mark. After your mark has been accepted for registration by a state or federal trademark office (see below), you will exchange “TM” for the traditional “R” in a circle.

A trademark owner may register that trademark in the state or states in which he or she uses it. If the owner has used the trademark in more than one state (i.e., distributed and sold albums or performed in several states), he or she may be eligible for federal registration. But don’t wait until you meet federal registration requirements. Register initially in the state where you begin operation to protect your name and logo from the start.

Trademark registration in individual states is fairly simple and inexpensive; federal registration is a bit more complex and costly. In either case, use an experienced attorney to prepare your registration. If you register your mark incorrectly, you could risk losing your filing fee, registration, and use of the mark.

Before registering a trademark with the State or (if qualified) Federal Register, you are required by law to use the name and/or logo publicly, usually by putting it on manufactured CDs or on advertising for the sale of your label’s products. Having done this, your label can register its name and/or other mark, which effectively and legally notifies others that you are the owner of that name or mark and are using it. Once you have registered, no other label will be allowed to register or use a name or logo similar to yours.

If another label does try to use the same or a similar name or logo, your prior use and registration would allow you to notify the user to cease using your mark and, if need be, pursue litigation to end such use and prevent it in the future. The same is true for the names and logos of recording artists signed to your label. Once those names and logos are registered, no other band or artist can use them, or anything similar. You can find further informationby visiting the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office online at