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Trademark Wars: Federal vs. State Registration Explained

Posted by Dragan Dan Ivetić | Apr 14, 2024 | 0 Comments

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Trademark Wars: Federal vs. State Registration Explained

Trademark Wars: Federal vs. State Registration Explained

Did you know that you have a choice between State and Federal trademark registration? Which is better for your particular business? What are the costs of each? As a business owner, navigating the multifaceted world of trademarks can often seem like engaging in a complex strategic game, one that requires savvy decision-making to protect your brand effectively. Understanding the difference between state and federal trademark registration is critical for creators, startups, and small business owners alike. But why choose one over the other, and what are the implications of your choice?

This blog post will unpack the distinctions between state and federal trademark registrations, articulate their respective benefits, and provide insight into which might be the best choice for protecting your creative or commercial endeavors. It will also highlight the potential impacts on your brand's security and the legal ramifications of each option.

What is a Trademark?

Before we dive into the differences between state and federal trademarks, let's first define what a trademark actually is. A trademark refers to a symbol, word, phrase, or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of goods or services of one party from those of another. It acts as a unique identifier for your brand, helping consumers to recognize and associate your products or services with your business. It is often referred to as the most valuable and important asset that a business can have (regardless of the size or industry of that business).

Trademarks are essential for businesses of all sizes. They not only protect the goodwill and reputation associated with a brand but also serve as valuable assets that can increase in value over time. They can also serve as a powerful marketing tool, helping to establish and maintain brand recognition in a crowded marketplace.

State Trademarks

State trademark registration provides protection for a trademark within the borders of a specific state. As such, a state trademark is governed by state law. This means that if your business operates solely within one state, then a state trademark registration may be all you need to protect your brand. It is also typically less expensive and has simpler filing requirements compared to federal registration. Very often, applying for a state trademark merely means filing a form and paying a fee to the state.

However, it's important to note that state trademarks only provide protection within the specific state or states in which they are registered. This means that if you plan to expand your business beyond state lines, a state trademark will not offer any protection outside of your home state. A federal trademark can also trump a state trademark.

State Trademark Registration

The process is typically faster and less expensive than federal registration, but it comes with limitations. Since the protection is solely within the state of registration, a state trademark can be a risky play if you plan to expand beyond those borders in the future. Tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs whose products or services exist primarily online or across state lines might find state registration lacking.

In Illinois, for instance, the process for registering a state trademark involves filling out and filing a form with the Secretary of State, and paying a nominal fee (currently $10). This process is very similar to registering a business name, and it can be completed relatively quickly.

State registration can offer some degree of protection against subsequent users within the same state. However, it's worth considering whether this localized form of protection aligns with your long-term brand growth strategy.

Federal Trademark

Federal trademark registration offers a level of protection that extends beyond the confines of any single state, encompassing the entire United States and its territories. The main requirement for a federal trademark is that the mark in question is being used in intrastate commerce. This type of registration is crucial for businesses looking to establish and maintain a nationwide presence. It not only provides exclusive rights to use the trademark across the country but also offers legal advantages in disputes and the ability to register in foreign countries. Achieving federal registration, though more complex and costly than state registration, is essential for brands aiming for widespread recognition and protection.

Federal Trademark Registration

Federal registration is overseen by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and affords trademark rights throughout the entire United States. The process involves filing an application with the USPTO and then "prosecuting" that application to a final decision.  The USPTO will charge a filing fee per each class of goods/services that you wish to protect (currently either $250 or $350 per class).  Though federal registration can be attained without a lawyer, the process is very technical, and a lawyer greatly improves your odds of a successful registration.

The application will be subjected to scrutiny by an examining attorney at the USPTO, and if it passes that test, it will be published for potential opposition by 3rd parties. Neither of these are hurdles that a state trademark needs to clear.

Unlike a state trademark, obtaining a federal trademark is quite lengthy. At present, it takes more than 14 months from the application to a final decision on registration.

By securing a federal trademark, you're also in a stronger position to take legal action against infringement in federal court. Additionally, federal registration can serve as a basis for foreign registrations, which is critical for startups looking to enter international markets. Since anything on the internet can be considered international, that can be very important.

Preventative measures like these are precisely why entities involved in interstate commerce—or those with plans to grow—might opt for federal registration. It indicates to potential infringers that your business is serious about protecting its brand.

The process for federal trademark registration includes a comprehensive search of existing trademarks to avoid conflicts, and it can be more detailed and lengthy, often requiring the assistance of a trademark lawyer. However, the benefits of widespread protection and greater legal leverage often outweigh the costs.

Making the Right Choice

Whether you need a trademark lawyer, are ready to fill out a trademark application, or simply want to understand how to protect your brand effectively, the question remains: state or federal?

Deciding between state and federal registration depends on your business's size, scope, and ambition. If you're running a local coffee shop with no intention to franchise, state trademark registration might suffice. But if you're a startup with a vision that transcends state borders, federal registration should be your goal.

Specific scenarios can arise in which the superiority of a federal trademark over a state trademark are demonstrated. A somewhat famous example arises from Illinois, and relates to the trademark "Burger King." Nowadays, that trademark is known and associated with a large restaurant brand that is spread all over the United States and internationally in several countries. However, the "Burger King" brand (in Illinois) is also known for a small "mom and pop" style restaurant opened in Mattoon, Illinois. The Mattoon "Burger King" (unaffiliated with the larger "Burger King") had and still has an Illinois trademark (whereas the larger Burger King had and has a federal trademark). The owners of the Matton Burger King tried to enforce their Illinois trademark through litigation, and they lost. Despite having a state trademark, the Mattoon Burger King was granted exclusive rights only within the confines of Mattoon, Illinois. The larger Burger King was allowed to expand to all other areas of Illinois (and they did, and the rest is history as they say).

This case is a very good example about the limited value of a state trademark registration and the limited rights that it can convey. For many businesses, even though more expensive, a federal trademark is a better investment, in that its protections are better.

Of course, there are also scenarios where a state trademark registration is ideal, especially when a federal registration is not available.  Examples of this may be if your business is only local in nature and does not meet the "intrastate commerce" test.  Another example is if your business is involved in the legalized cannabis, CBD, or marijuana industry.  Although many states have legalized such businesses, they are still prohibited by federal law.  While not impossible, it is very difficult to get a federal trademark for most businesses involved in the the legalized cannabis, CBD, or marijuana industry.  In both of these instances, a state trademark may be an appropriate choice to be considered.  


Understanding the battlefield of trademark registration is crucial for anyone looking to protect their intellectual property. Whether you decide on state or federal trademark registration will hinge on the nature of your business and the breadth of protection you require.

Keep in mind that these choices are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Subject to your business strategy, getting both state and federal registrations might be beneficial. In all cases, consulting with a knowledgeable trademark lawyer can provide tailored advice for your unique situation, ensuring that your brand—your business's most valuable asset—receives the protection it deserves.

Remember, in the war of trademarks, the informed are always the victors.


If you're seeking guidance for your trademark application or need a trademark lawyer to help protect your brand, our legal team is equipped with the knowledge and experience to ensure your intellectual property assets are safeguarded. Contact us today to secure the future of your business, whether through a strategy to pursue a state or federal trademark—or both.

Contact our office for a free initial consultation to get started!

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About the Author

Dragan Dan Ivetić

DRAGAN DAN IVETIĆ was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, and wanted to become an attorney to help people from a young age.  He received a bachelor's d...


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