Service Marks: Definition, Examples, and How They Protect Your Business


Service marks, often confused with trademarks, play a crucial role in protecting a business’s identity and intellectual property. This guide explains what a service mark is, how it works, its benefits, real-world examples, and common FAQs. Learn how to register a service mark and understand the key differences between TM, SM, and ® symbols. Explore the world of service marks and how they contribute to brand identity and legal protection.

What is a service mark?

A service mark, sometimes abbreviated as “SM,” is a valuable element of intellectual property that distinguishes the provider of services. Unlike trademarks, which are associated with physical goods, service marks are linked to services offered by a business or individual. Service marks can take various forms, including words, phrases, symbols, designs, or combinations thereof.

Service marks serve as a shield against competitors who might use similar names or insignias, causing confusion among consumers. By registering a service mark, a business or individual gains exclusive rights to it, preventing unauthorized use.

How a service mark works

The primary distinction between a trademark and a service mark lies in the nature of the offerings. A trademark identifies the source of goods, whereas a service mark designates the provider of services. However, it’s common for people to use the term “trademark” when referring to both.

To obtain legal protection for a service mark, individuals or businesses need to file an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Once registered, a service mark can bear the standard registration symbol ®.

Pros and Cons of Service Marks

Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks of using service marks.


  • Protection of intellectual property
  • Prevention of unauthorized use
  • Potential for monetary damages in case of infringement
  • Establishment of a unique brand identity
  • Facilitation of international expansion


  • Registration cost (ranging from $225 to $300)
  • Requirement for renewal every 10 years
  • Potential legal complexities and disputes
  • Limited to specific services, not physical goods
  • Competitive challenges in court for protection

Special considerations

Confusion often arises around symbols like TM, SM, and ®. TM and SM are used for trademarks and service marks, respectively, to demonstrate ownership. The ® symbol signifies that the trademark or service mark is officially registered with the USPTO. Registration isn’t mandatory, but it offers several advantages, including legal presumption of ownership across all 50 states.

Benefits of a service mark

Service marks offer a multitude of benefits, including the protection of intellectual property. By registering a service mark, you can safeguard your unique ideas and products, preventing others from exploiting them. This establishes your mark as exclusive and subject to legal action in case of violations, entitling you to monetary damages.

Additionally, obtaining a service mark in the United States can facilitate the process of securing service marks in foreign markets. It allows businesses to create a distinctive brand identity, which is crucial for conveying to customers what the brand represents and the quality they can expect. This fosters customer loyalty and business growth.

Real-world examples

Some of the world’s most famous service marks include Nike’s iconic phrase, “just do it,” and McDonald’s golden arches. These symbols are so powerful that they don’t require additional branding to be recognized globally.

In a noteworthy service mark infringement case, 3M successfully defended its famous logo against a Chinese company, 3N, which imitated its logo. While both companies had differences in products and pricing, the similarity in service marks led to a court victory for 3M, resulting in damages of Rmb 3.5 million from 3N.

Service marks in action: Comprehensive examples

Service marks play a vital role in building brand recognition and protecting intellectual property. Let’s explore more real-world examples to understand the diversity and significance of service marks.

Coca-cola’s signature typeface

Coca-Cola, one of the world’s most iconic brands, has a unique service mark that extends beyond just its logo. The distinct cursive typeface used for the brand name is a registered service mark. This font is instantly recognizable, making it a crucial part of Coca-Cola’s branding strategy. It’s a testament to how service marks can encompass more than just symbols or logos.

Intel’s sonic logo

Intel, the technology giant, has a notable service mark that you can’t see but can certainly hear. Their five-note jingle is an integral part of their brand identity. This audio logo, often played at the beginning of Intel-related advertisements, is a registered service mark. It demonstrates how service marks can transcend visual elements and include audio cues.

Expanding your brand with service marks

International service mark registration

If your business operates globally or plans to expand into international markets, it’s essential to understand the importance of registering your service mark internationally. While a U.S. service mark provides protection within the country, it may not safeguard your mark abroad. The Madrid System for the International Registration of Marks offers a convenient way to protect your service mark in multiple countries. Understanding this process can help your business maintain a consistent brand identity worldwide.

Service marks vs. Copyrights

Service marks and copyrights serve different purposes in protecting intellectual property. Copyrights safeguard original creative works, such as literature, music, and art, while service marks protect brands and their identifiers. It’s crucial to know the distinctions between these forms of intellectual property to ensure your creations are adequately protected. This section explores the differences and the situations in which you might need both service marks and copyrights to secure your business’s assets.

The bottom line

Service marks are indispensable for businesses and individuals offering services. They are essential for safeguarding intellectual property, ensuring brand recognition, and preventing theft of ideas and products. Understanding how service marks work and how to protect them is crucial for establishing a unique brand identity and legal security.

Frequently asked questions

How do you register a service mark?

To register a service mark, you must file an application with the USPTO. Only after approval can you use the registered trademark symbol ®.

How long does a service mark last?

In the U.S., service marks can theoretically last forever, but they need to be renewed every 10 years.

What does it cost to get a service mark?

The cost of registering a service mark typically ranges from $225 to $300.

What does a service mark protect?

Service marks protect various forms of intellectual property, including logos, phrases, music, and business names.

What is a service mark search?

A service mark search is conducted by business owners to determine if the service mark they plan to use is already in use, helping avoid potential legal issues.

Key takeaways

  • Service marks identify service providers and can include words, symbols, or designs.
  • They protect intellectual property and can lead to monetary damages for infringements.
  • A service mark is indicated by the ℠ symbol before registration and ® after federal registration.
View article sources
  1. SuperMoney’s Terms of Service – SuperMoney
  2. What are specimens for trademarks and service marks? – Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs
  3. Trademark Symbols – International Trademark Association