From the Nolo eCommerce Center
Answers to commonly asked questions about choosing and registering a successful business name.
- How do I pick a name for my business?
- What’s the best type of name for my business?
- How do I find out if the business name I want is available?
- What is a trademark?
- What is the “legal name” of my business?
- What is a fictitious business name?
- Do I have to register my business name?
No doubt you’ll spend hours brainstorming for a business name that represents your products or services – a name that’s both marketable and infused with personality. To help the creative process along, you might surf the Web, browse the dictionary, read trade magazines and bounce ideas off of friends and colleagues. As you hunt for the perfect name, keep three main questions in mind:
- Will your business name receive trademark protection?
- Is your proposed business name available?
- If your business will have a website, is a similar domain name available?
Plus, if you’re starting a corporation, LLC or limited partnership, you must comply with a few states rules for naming your business. (See How to Form a Corporation to learn about requirements for official corporate names and How to Form an LLC for LLC name rules.)
What’s the best type of name for my business? There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for picking a great business name. The best name depends on a host of considerations – some as obvious as the kind of business you do, others as unique as your own tastes and style. There are, however, a few guidelines that will steer you in the right direction. A good business name should:
- be distinctive
- be memorable
- be easily spelled and pronounced
- suggest the products or services you offer, and
- distinguish you from your competitors.
You’ll have to conduct a name and trademark search to make sure no one else is using the name you want to use (or one very much like it) to market similar products or services. You should also check with your county clerk’s office to see whether your proposed name is already on the list of fictitious or assumed business names in your county. If you find that your chosen name (or a very similar one) is registered as a trademark, or is listed on a fictitious or assumed name register, you shouldn’t use it.
If you’re organizing your business as a corporation, LLC or limited partnership, you must also make sure your business name isn’t the same as that of an existing corporation, LLC or limited partnership in your state. If a name that is identical or similar to your proposed business name turns up in your state’s database, you’ll have to choose another.
A trademark (sometimes called simply a “mark”) is any word, phrase, design or symbol used to market a product or service. Technically, a mark used to market a service, rather than a product, is called a service mark, though the term “trademark” is commonly used for both types of marks because they refer to the same group of legal protections. Owners of trademarks have rights under both federal and state law that give them the power in many cases to prevent others from using the same or confusingly similar trademarks.
When picking a business name, take care to choose a name that will be likely to receive trademark protection and then take steps to protect your business name as a trademark. On the flip side, to make sure your business name won’t step on someone else’s rights to an existing trademark, you’ll have to do a trademark search.
The legal name of a business is the official name of the person or entity that owns a business. If you are the only owner of your business, then its legal name is simply your full name.
If your business is a general partnership, and you have a written partnership agreement that gives a name to the partnership, then that name is the legal name of the business. Otherwise, the legal name of a general partnership consists of the last names of the owners.
For limited partnerships, LLCs and corporations, the legal name of the business is the name registered with the state filing office.
Your business’s legal name will be required on all government forms and applications, and is particularly important to use on your application for a federal employer identification number.
The term “fictitious business name” (or, sometimes, “assumed business name,” “trade name” or “DBA”) is used when a business uses a name that’s different from its legal name. For instance, if John O’Toole names his sole proprietorship Turtle’s Classic Cars, the name “Turtle’s Classic Cars” is a fictitious business name because it does not contain his last name, “O’Toole.”
If your business uses a fictitious business name, you’ll need to register it with a government agency – in most states, your local county clerk’s office.
For more information, read Registering Your Business Name.
If you’re starting a corporation, LLC or limited partnership, your official business name will be automatically registered when you file your articles of incorporation, articles of organization or statement of limited partnership with your state filing office. However, if you will sell products or services under a different name, you must also file a fictitious name statement (sometimes called an “assumed” name statement) with the state or county where your business is headquartered.
Other types of businesses may also have to comply with fictitious or assumed business name requirements. Generally, any business that doesn’t use its legal name as part of its business name must file a fictitious name statement with a government agency, usually the county clerk’s office.
You may also want to take advantage of the extra protection that registering your name as a trademark can give you. While it’s not required, registering your name as a trademark at the state and/or federal level can prevent other businesses from using a name that’s likely to be confused with your business name.