Q&A Trademarks

How Can You Know if a Trademark Search is Reliable?

There are different situations where a trademark search is beneficial. And there are different types of searches with different levels of scope. But how can you know if a given trademark search is reliable? How thorough or extensive does search have to be? Are simple queries in online portals enough to rely on? This article will address those questions about what makes for a good trademark search.

Overview of Best Practices

Trademark searching is perhaps more art than science. There is no single approach suitable for all situations. But there are a number of factors that tend to make trademark searches better and more reliable in general. These include the following:

  • Accounts for applicable trademark laws in the relevant jurisdiction(s)
  • Encompasses variants and similar marks, and not limited to exact or identical matches
  • Looks beyond identical and overlapping goods and services to different but related goods/services
  • Uses reliable tools or databases with relevant content coverage
  • Results are coupled with a competent legal analysis

These factors are discussed further below. Although this article is not meant to be a tutorial on the mechanics of or strategies for performing trademark searches.

The Likelihood of Confusion Standard

Under U.S. trademark law, a likelihood of confusion standard is used. It applies when determining if a proposed mark is federally registrable. This is the standards trademark examiners apply to new trademark applications. Registration will be refused if there is a likelihood of confusion with a prior mark. It also generally applies when assessing potential infringement. Trademark infringement arises when there is a likelihood of consumer confusion, even if actual confusion has not occurred among customers.

This legal standard looks an multiple factors from the point of view of relevant consumers. There is no precise formula for how these factors are applied. But two factors tend to be most important. One is how similar (or dissimilar) two marks are, when considering the overall commercial impressions the proposed create. Another is how similar (or dissimilar) the goods and services are.

Importantly, the trademarks do not have to be identical to be similar enough to create a likelihood of consumer confusion. The goods and services can potentially differ as well. For instance, they might partially overlap or the goods and services might differ but still be considered related. There is no universal, bright-line rule for how close is too close, or what sorts of differences will sufficiently avoid potential confusion.

Legal standards in other countries may different. But most countries take a generally similar approach.

Simply Queries Are Often Not Enough

A reliable trademark search needs to be broad enough to capture different but similar marks. This includes things like alternate spellings, phonetic equivalents, transposition of words, different punctuation—like the difference between one word or two, with or without a hyphen—and even other words with similar meanings. Foreign-language translations or transliterations might also be considered, which can be particular useful when looking at foreign countries where other languages are common. Basically, the search needs to account for the fact that prior trademarks may be relevant to the likelihood of consumer confusion even though they differ in some way.

A few limited keyword searches in an Internet search engine or trademark database may not be sufficient. That is especially true if searching only for marks that are identical. For instance, if a search for a proposed brand name that includes the word “theater” omits prior marks using the alternate spelling “theatre” or intentional misspelling “theatr” it could miss something important. The same goes for portmanteau or compound word terms that incorporate words like “theater”.

Trademark searching also involves the difficult problem of trying to prove a negative. You can never be absolutely certain that nothing relevant is out there. If nothing appears it might mean nothing else exists, or it might simply mean you missed a relevant prior mark. A perfect search is impossible. Even a high quality search might miss a prior mark that someone else considers relevant. After all, there are some judgement calls involved with these fuzzy legal standards. But the goal is to use sufficiently robust and thorough searching methods. Getting “zero hits” or “no results” from a few cursory searches, based only on looking for exact matches in a limited coverage database, is often not adequate or reliable.

Using Online Portals

There are some free, open-access online portals that allow trademark searching. Some of these are provided by official trademark offices. Others are privately run by various companies. There are also proprietary databases that require paid subscriptions or other fees.

Many free “trademark availability” search engines are unreliable and misleading. For instance, queries in a free trademark availability search engine for the following proposed marks all said they were supposedly “available”:


Of course, none of these proposed marks are actually available for use, at least not if they create a likelihood of confusion with the famous brands they incorporate (or cause dilution). Simply adding an additional generic or highly descriptive term without changing the overall commercial impression is not enough to avoid confusion. Those minor differences from an existing mark generally do not mean that a proposed mark is available for use or registration. Any of these example marks would be refused registration. Their use would probably also result in legal problems.

Adequate Coverage

A trademark search also needs to encompass sources likely to contain the kind of trademark information that matters to your legal questions. There are many different trademark databases available. But there is no single comprehensive database of all worldwide trademark information searchable across all possible fields. It would be nice if there were. But every real-word tool or database has limits on its coverage. This even applies to general-purpose Internet search engines. For instance, there can be purely offline trademark uses that cannot be found online.

Reliable searching involves selecting the right resources to consult. This might mean paying for access to certain proprietary tools. Or it might mean searching in multiple databases or tools each having different coverage. Often the specific coverage of a given database can be confusing or not readily apparent.

Considerations for Graphical Logos and Non-Traditional Marks

Searching trademarks with prominent visual design components or stylization, especially logos without any wording, presents some unique challenges. The same applies to non-traditional marks like trade dress, colors, sounds, etc. There are tools that allow what amounts to a reverse image search of a logo. Those tool can be helpful. But they are not always completely reliable on their own. There are also design search codes or other classification systems for categorizing elements of trademarks other than wording. These codes or classifications offer a particularly helpful way to search for similar logos, visual design elements, and elements of non-traditional trademarks.

A Search Alone is Not a Legal Opinion

Simply searching for trademarks—and no more—tells you very little. It will at most give you a list of existing marks. But which of those matter? Which ones are distinguishable? Which ones are close enough to present problems? Was your search robust enough to have confidence that there actually are no problematic existing trademarks? To answer those questions you need a legal opinion. That means analyzing trademark search results from a legal perspective. It is recommended to have a knowledgeable attorney analyze search results and provide legal advice about registrability and/or any infringement risk.


There is definitely cost associated with a quality, reliable trademark search and accompanying legal analysis. Costs especially tend to increase when the scope of a search encompasses more geographic regions or jurisdictions. Selecting the cheapest option, or taking a free do-it-yourself approach, often does not result in the reliable results. Cheap searches and $99 fixed-fee “legal” services are not going to give you a reliable legal opinion or provide meaningful strategic guidance.

Small businesses frequently feel they cannot afford these costs. Skipping a search means you are taking you chances. It is like rolling the dice and hoping there are no obstacles or infringement risks lying in wait. Businesses often regret not clearing their branding before adopting it, or regret selecting a weak mark. Doing so might mean later facing large re-branding costs, limits on expansion of your brand, and/or a decreased business valuation. In a worst case scenario it might even destroy everything built-up in a business. So a good search (+ legal opinion) upfront can be a good value in the long run.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.