Keeping What's Yours

What do the following have in common: McDonald's golden arches, Disney's Mickey Mouse, an independent planner's proposal to a prospective client, and a distinctive name for a meeting or trade show?

Answer: They are all valuable, or potentially valuable, pieces of intellectual property that should be protected against misappropriation or misuse by others.

A trademark is a form of intellectual property that is used to distinguish a product or service distributed by one individual or organization from others in the marketplace. The mark to be used must be distinctive, not "merely descriptive" of the product or service, and there may not be a similar mark in use for similar products or services. In other words, the name "XYZ Annual Meeting" could not be trademarked.

To trademark a distinctive name for a meeting or event—for example, the annual Springtime® trade show sponsored by the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives—one must file an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The process, which involves a search of existing trademarks to see if there is anything that could be deceptively similar and then publishing of the application for public comment, can take a year or more, but the protection granted will prevent others from using the name for a similar event and will add an air of professionalism and importance to the name.

Independent planners and others whose business name is distinctive should seriously consider investigating whether their name can be trademarked, since, with the advent of the Internet, virtually every business with a Web site address is now a global enterprise.

Likewise, a written proposal to a client is also a valuable piece of intellectual property that the author would not like to see copied or given to a competitor. Fortunately, that type of material is copyrighted in the name of the author at the time it is written. And though both are advised, no notice or filing with a government agency is necessary.

For example, an independent planner making a written proposal to a client should consider adding a copyright notice—e.g., "Copyright (year) (name of author)"—on the title page of all written proposals. Or, do what computer software manufacturers and many Web sites do: Include a "contractual" notice just inside the title page. A clear and distinctive notice—in a box alone on a page, for instance—could state that if the prospective client opens the document, that client is bound to use the proposal only for evaluation purposes, agrees not to share it with anyone outside of his or her organization, and, in some cases, promises to return all copies if the proposal is not submitted.

James M. Goldberg, Esq. is an attorney with a nationwide hospitality practice that focuses on the representation of associations, nonprofits, and independent planners. He is the author of The Meeting Planner's Legal Handbook. Mr. Goldberg may be contacted at (202) 628-2929 or jim [email protected] His firm's Web site is