Can you trademark a foreign word?

Yes, you can trademark a foreign word. You may use a foreign word or phrase to brand your goods or services, and therefore can trademark it.

This information was provided by our founding attorney, Xavier Morales, Esq. 

For example, the French phrase “C’EST LA VIE” is a registered trademark for a line of cigar products. If you select a distinct foreign word or phrase, you may trademark it the same way that you would any other name, slogan, or logo.

When you successfully trademark a foreign word or phrase, it will prevent any competitors from using that particular word or phrase to promote or sell similar products or services. It will not prevent people from using the word or phrase conversationally. The Trademark Office may decline your application if the foreign word serves as a generic term for your goods or services.

Understanding Foreign Equivalents and Trademark Law

In considering a trademark for a foreign word, it's critical to understand the concept of "foreign equivalents" within trademark law. This principle dictates that if the English translation of a foreign word is generic or descriptive of the products or services it's used with, then the foreign word itself may be ineligible for trademark protection. This is particularly relevant for words from languages familiar to American consumers. For example, "chaqueta" is Spanish for "jacket", making it unlikely to be granted as a trademark by USPTO as it's too descriptive, and Spanish is a common language in America. Consequently, a trademark application involving non-English wording, especially in widely understood languages or those using Non-Latin Characters, requires careful evaluation.

Descriptive Marks and the Likelihood of Confusion

A key hurdle in trademark registration applications is ensuring that the applied-for mark is not merely descriptive of the goods or services. For instance, using a Latin term that directly describes a characteristic or function of the product might be considered too descriptive to qualify for trademark protection. Similarly, the trademark office assesses the "likelihood of confusion" with existing marks, a process that includes considering the meaning of foreign language marks and their impact on the target market.

Challenges with Non-Latin Characters and Special Considerations

Trademarking non-English wording that involves non-Roman script, such as China, Russia, UAE (and other Arabic countries), and Japan presents unique challenges. Not only must the trademark applicant consider the direct translation and its connotations in English, but also how those characters might be perceived or misunderstood by consumers not fluent in the foreign language. This raises complex issues regarding both the meaning and visual representation of the applied-for mark.

The Role of a Trademark Attorney in Navigating Language Issues

Consulting with a trademark attorney becomes indispensable when dealing with foreign language marks. An experienced attorney can guide you through the nuances of the trademark application processes, including the evaluation of your applied-for mark against the absolute rule of descriptiveness and the likelihood of confusion with existing marks. This is essential for both words that are in a language familiar to an appreciable segment of American consumers and for those in "dead languages" or using scripts not widely recognized, such as Chinese characters.

Bringing it all Together

Trademarking a foreign term requires a careful balance between the word's uniqueness as a brand identifier and its potential meanings or translations in English. The process involves a deep dive into the nuances of trademark law, the linguistic landscape of the American market, and the strategic positioning of the mark to avoid confusion and ensure legal protection. Consulting with a trademark attorney experienced in foreign language marks is a crucial step in navigating these complexities and securing your brand's identity on a global stage.

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Xavier Morales, Esq.

About the Author

Xavier Morales, Esq.

Mr. Morales founded his trademark law practice in January 2007 with the goal of providing intellectual property expertise to entrepreneurs and businesses around the country. Since then, he has filed more than 6,000 trademarks with the USPTO. You can learn more about Xavier here.

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