You May Be Wondering…
“Can I use my last name for my business?”. The short answer is yes, but this may not actually be in your best interest. Many businesses want you to know that they stand behind their product or service. Some businesses want you to know how proud they are of their business. In both cases, it is common for the business name to contain the last name(s) of the owner(s). Surnames, aka last names or family names, are considered descriptive. You do not necessarily want your brand name to fall under the descriptive category. The more descriptive your brand name, the higher the risk that you face in not being able to protect your brand.
Just like people should have a general right to use related terms in branding, the same general right applies to people using their last names. However, if your name is not distinct enough, you may face trouble gaining trademark rights. Interestingly enough, any descriptive term can become distinctive through long-term use and promotion. This could prevent others from using the same last name in a similar industry. A common example is McDonalds. Few people think of Richard and Maurice McDonald when they think of this restaurant, so I would advise anyone named McDonald to pick a different brand for their restaurant. Unlike McDonalds, if you own a small or mid sized business, it’s risky to use your last name as your branding. If you’re still unsure whether or not using your last name is a good choice for your business, please take a look at the following 5 factors that may make or break your brand.
Is the surname rare or is it commonly used?
Is it the surname of anyone connected with the owner?
Does the term have any recognized meaning other than as a surname?
Does it have the “structure and pronunciation” of a surname?
Is lettering stylization enough to create a distinct impression?
Hey Lawyers! Yes, you.
I’m talking to you! You too, Accounting firms. You do NOT have an ABSOLUTE RIGHT to start a business using your last name(s). Doing this could lead you to serious trouble. It will take you years of gaining reputation in your firm to acquire the level of distinctiveness to protect your firm name that is simply your last name. If this sounds like you, you may need a Legal Brand Counselor on your side.
For a story on an infringement case that eventually led to one man being banned from using his own last name for his company, check out this post.