toto article listarticle list
The Spire Project: Searching Trademarks
  Jump to:      
A patent protects your investment in an invention. Copyright covers your effort in a literary or artistic work. Trademarks protect your investment in identifying a product or service to the marketplace.

Consider the striped IBM logo (IP Australia trademark).

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or combination identifying a product or service in the marketplace. This covers logos, marketing slogans, brand and trade names. In some circumstances, the trademark can cover colors or smells. Registered trademarks are trademarks granted additional legitimacy by the appropriate government agency. Common Law trademarks ('unregistered') are also protected, to a lesser degree. Both can be used to stop others using identical or similar marketing slogans, logos, brand and trade names.

This article delves into the task of trademark research, that is, finding comparable trademarks.


to article list Registered Trademark Databases
The first step in trademark research is to search the national registered trademark databases. These databases are freely searchable online:
database IP Australia ( has the very user-friendly ATMOSS database online, and their more definitive (but nightmarish) Trade Marks Mainframe Database. Read the disclaimers by starting at IP Australia's trademark page, or jump directly to Connect to Trademark Search
database The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides this page on US Trademarks. The new TESS database has taken the place of the older trademark database. Unfortunately, TESS can be congested. Start at the Search Page.
database The Canadian Intellectual Property Office CIPO ( delivers free online, the Canadian Trade-marks Database - all pending and registered trade-marks in Canada. Canada also publishes some of the best advice regarding trademarks. Start at the CIPO Trademark Page or alternatively, jump directly to the Canadian Trade-marks Database. Here is the database description.
database Further countries are preparing English access to registered trademarks but we could not find more online at this time. To search, start with Rossco's WWW Corner and his fine list of Patent Offices.

to article list Australian Trademarks in More Detail
IP Australia ( is the government organization responsible for Australian trademark concerns. Australia has about 800,000 registered trademarks, and access is freely available online through either the simple graphical interface of ATMOSS (Australian Trade Marks Online Search System), or through the slightly superior but difficult and non-graphical Trade Marks Mainframe Database (and the associated trademark viewer).
database The ATMOSS database allows you to search using either the description of the trademark, or the trade mark number. It is returns similar trademarks, with trademark number, class, description, date, status, and perhaps an image of the trademark. Start with Connect to Trademark Search
database The [Australian] Trade Marks Mainframe Database is technically superior to ATMOSS as it is more current (about 3 days rather than about 2 weeks), has better field searching (by owners or phonetic) and includes references to correspondence regarding trademark registration. Unfortunately, the Trade Marks Mainframe Database is not graphical, and is probably not worth your time in learning. I am led to believe the superior field searching will gradually migrate to ATMOSS anyway. If you do wish to persevere, there is a manual online, visit one of the trademark libraries, or pay for a search (see below).

In most countries but not all, registration of a trademark is not required to gain legal protection. Most trademarks are not registered, and enjoy considerable 'common law' legal protection under trade practices or fair dealing legislation. For this reason a trademark search must reach beyond the national registered trademark database, to search brand names, business names, and other sources of trademark usage.

To quote the Trademark FAQ by the USPTO:

A common law search involves searching records other than the federal register and pending application records. It may involve checking phone directories, yellow pages, industrial directories, state trademark registers, among others, in an effort to determine if a particular mark is used by others when they have not filed for a federal trademark registration.

Frequently Asked Questions About Trademarks (USPTO)

to article list Common Law Searching
The premise of a search is to find possible sources of trademark similarity. We search sites where trademarks appear.
database Business names and trademarks are not the same but are often used interchangeably. A business name search may give you leads to possible trademark similarities. Phone directories (white and yellow), and national business name registers list business names.
database The internet is a fine site to search, especially since the search engines are prepared in a useful manner. I would search for word fragment in Altavista, Debriefing, and's usenet archive. See our articles: Searching the Web and Discussion Groups. With Altavista, be certain to surround words with quotes to "keep words together".

Of course, this does not account for similar pronunciation, or the graphical elements of trademarks.

database Trademarks appear in trade magazines but not often in the database formats, so this gives rise to the unenviable task of paging through likely magazines for similar trademark.
database One uncertain resource is the Altavista picture search. By indexing the alt=" " text from html pages, Altavista compiles a list of pictures on the web. A search for butterfly, for example, locates 100+ pictures labeled 'butterfly'. Several of the portals offer picture searches. This might work to your benefit if the graphical element you are searching for is simple and distinct.


Should you want to learn how trademarks are created, used and defended, these are the best sites to visit:
Trademark References by the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO)
What's in a Name? Using trade-marks as a business tool
Glossary of Intellectual Property Terms
Trade-mark FAQ
Guide to Trade-marks
All about Trademarks by Gregory H. Guillot at
(unusual clarity on trademark law)
A Guide to Proper Trademark Use
How are Marks Protected
General Information Concerning Trademarks by the USPTO
Frequently Asked Questions About Trademarks

to article list Trademark Libraries
In the countries with internet access to the trademark database, the libraries could be said to be redundant - except as a source for ample and personal assistance with your search. In other countries these libraries may be able to assist with searching.
webpage IP Australia has a patent & trademark library in each state capital. These libraries provide free access to the ATMOSS database but also offers the much-needed assistance for the troublesome Trade Marks Mainframe Database.
webpage The US has The Patent and Trademark Depository Library Program (PTDL's) - Here is a list of sites.
webpage In Canada, consider visiting Intellectual Property Links: Canadian by CIPO for possible sources of trademark assistance.
webpage In the UK, we presume the Patents Information Network (PIN) provides trademark assistance, through the is no freely searchable database to UK trademarks. Start at the [UK] The Patent Office: trademark page or this clickable map to PIN sites.


One of the most invaluable resources in serious trademark research is access to several of the very large commercial trademark databases.

to article list Commercial Trademark Databases
webpage Lexis-Nexis ( retails several trademark-related databases.
webpage The Dialog Corporation ( retails a collection of TRADEMARKSCAN databases to European countries, Canada, and US (federal & state). These databases cover the registered patents for their respective countries.

In addition to the database retailers and producers, there is a lively industry of trademark search assistance.

There are numerous commercial firms on the internet selling trademark services; much of this is little more than an ad for trademark related litigation.

MicroPatent ( offers access to a proprietary trademark database. More information coming.

Watching services are another possibility: These are not expensive but following the leads suggested will be. I can not yet advise you on a reliable trademark researcher.

As a case in point, IP Australia provides a Business Names Applicant Search Service. A$40 buys you a search of the Australian registered trademark database by their trained staff. Contact IP Australia directly for this (Tel Au: 1300 651010) - they accept credit cards & fax/postal applications.


Trademark law is designed to protect consumers from confusion. The law can work to protect business investment in brands & slogans but only if the business behaves in particular ways which protect consumers from confusion: actively using the trademark, working to restrict the trademark from becoming generic, routinely searching for unauthorized use.

For a very clear description of trademark use, and the responsibilities of trademark owners, read the short webpages A Guide to Proper Trademark Use, and How are Marks Protected both by Gregory Guillot.

Trademark Law has implications for searching:

Just because a potentially conflicting trademark has been found does not mean it should concern you. It may be simple to show or argue that trademark ownership has lapsed and become abandoned unintentionally.

A Guide to Proper Trademark Use by Gregory H. Guillot

A common law search involves searching records other than the federal register and pending application records. It may involve checking phone directories, yellow pages, industrial directories, state trademark registers, among others, in an effort to determine if a particular mark is used by others when they have not filed for a federal trademark registration. Article ListResearch CommentarySeminar datesUpdate Notices

The system may appear particularly legalistic, and it is. Recent Australian Trade Marks Office Decisions information ultimately supplied by IP Australia, displays this vividly. However, much trademark activity is self-evident. In Australia, A$350 and a minimum of seven and a half months will usually earn you a registered trademark. Should you choose a trademark and find another has used it, you will most likely receive a 'cease & desist' letter and forfeit the value you may have invested in the trademark.

This leads us to the importance of commercial trademark databases, watching services and other commercial services. Searching both prevents investment in an unusable trademark and inadvertent infringement by others - a responsibility of trademark owners.

to article listTrademark Classification
A concise list of the 42 classes of the International Trademark Classification codes courtesy of Master-McNeil Inc. WIPO is in charge of the full class description, currently The 7th edition of the Nice Classification but this is rather lengthy. IP Australia has a simple search feature of classification terminology.
Trademarks are assigned to a particular class of product or service. A slogan or mark, for example, could be registered for use in movies but not computer products. The situation has changes recently but let us explain the difference down the page a bit.

Originally, all goods and services were broken down into 42 classes. These classes are international divisions organized by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), so are the same from country to country. Registered trademark documents will explain at length the types of products & services covered by a particular trademark.

There is some bleeding between categories, and trademark examiners are unlikely to grant requests for nearly identical trademarks in similar categories but class plays a role in granting trademarks.

Recently it became necessary to list specifically the products or services to be covered, and the 42 classes have been expanded to a collection of specific sub-classes, which is reminiscent of patent classification but far less useful.

Class is important as trademarks are class-specific. You can search by class in certain registered trademark databases but this is not particularly a good search technique: you are far too likely to miss a comparable trademark.

to article listTrademark Picture Descriptors
Search Image Descriptors, by IP Australia, here abbreviated, needs basic words - simple like bird or butterfly.
One difficulty with trademark searches is that all the tools apply best to words that appear in trademarks. What of the picture? The solution appears to be image descriptors. I am uncertain of the international nature of image descriptors but at least in Australia, there is a standard set of image descriptors. IP Australia allows you to search for other trademarks with a particular picture element - irrespective of the words involved. To do this, you must first select the appropriate image descriptor.


  5 Second Summary:
Several registered trademark databases are free online.
Registered trademark databases do not include  
        Common law trademarks.
Search telephone directories, the internet & trade
      magazines to find common-law trademarks.
Trademarks are just one element of intellectual property rights; patents, copyright, industrial design rights, circuit layout rights and plant breeders rights. As certain registered trademark databases are free online, some trademark research can be accomplished quite simply by the novice.

Why search?

1_ To find existing trademarks similar to one you plan to register.
2_ To find existing trademarks similar to one you plan to use as a trademark.
3_ To see if a trademark is similar to a business name you consider using.
4_ To search for possible infringing trademarks.

This is further explained in the help files by IP Australia. Look under the left-hand category "Why Use ATMOSS?".

Further Assistance
database has a lively usenet discussion on Intellectual Property. Access the newsgroup directly: or search the past discussion through's usenet archive).
webpage For a lively discussion of how trademark law affects internet domain names, consider the trademarks-l mailing list at Washburn University (read the Scout Report description).
to article listThe Spire Project - better ways to find information.
Like this? You should attend our public seminar and receive our bi-monthly update notice.
 | | | Project Background | Feedback. Copyright©David Novak 2002.