By Mike Jackson and Simon Hettrick.
What’s in a name?
Your new project (or software or product or anything) needs a name. Welcome to hours of head scratching, playing with acronyms, mashing words into unnatural forms and asking your friends and family ‘what does GreatWare say to you?’ Now imagine spending the next few years of your life on the project only to find that someone else is using the same name – and they used it first. When starting a project, checking that the name you’ve chosen is unique feels like an extra, unwanted headache, but it is well worth the effort.
In this guide, we'll take a look at how to choose a good name and the common pitfalls. We'll also look at searching for already used names (including trademark searches). Finally, we'll discuss our understanding of registered trademarks and passing off - two laws that can affect name choice.
Why write this guide?
Choosing a name is an incredibly important decision that has to be made very quickly at the start of a project. And, like it or not, a good project name can help a project to be successful. We could not find any resources that covered the major issues that surround the choice of a name, so we wrote this guide.
What’s in a good name?
We can’t tell you what name to choose, but we can give you a few hints and tips on what you should be looking for. This section might feel uncomfortably close to marketing for some people, but stick with it, because the value of a good name can’t be overstated. If users remember the name of your project, and tend to forget your competitors, then you have won a very important battle for recognition without writing a line of code.
It goes without saying that your name needs to stand out from the crowd and, preferably, give the user an indication of what the project does. Short and snappy is the order of the day: Multi-dimensional Mushroom Emulator might describe exactly what your software does, but it’s a bit of a mouthful. Similarly, overly long abbreviations are laborious to pronounce and should be avoided. When choosing a name, there’s nothing wrong with going with the zeitgeist, but remember that there’ll be a new zeitgeist tomorrow, so plan some adaptability.
There is a tendency to use acronyms for software projects, which is a great way of compressing lengthy names. There is little point (at least, in the opinion of one of the authors) in torturing the English language into an acronym just because you want to use a particular name. If you want to call your firework simulator BANG, there’s no need to say it stands for Big flAshy firework Noise Generator. Just call the project BANG. There’s no law against using a word that you like for your project name. Remember also that acronyms need to be written as well as spoken, and the more torturous the acronym, the more likely it will be spelt incorrectly by users, which affects brand recognition.
Think about typesetting. The impression a name gives can change markedly when it’s on the web, viewed from a distance, printed at low resolution or plastered on a billboard in ten-foot high lettering. If possible, try the name out in various guises and, if time doesn’t allow, consider the potential pitfalls of your chosen name when it appears in different forms.
Although the start of any project is a hectic time, it’s worth not rushing the name-choosing process. Take some time to try out the names, let them sink in and ask as many people as you can – from as many different backgrounds as you can - what they think. Your project will be around for a long time (we hope), and it’s only through serious consideration that you will end up with the perfect name.
So don’t sue me!
The Software Sustainability Institute does not provide legal advice. We’re not qualified to do so. In this guide, we will describe our understanding of laws that affect name choice. This information is supplied for interest only. If you have a legal problem, you should contact a lawyer.
For information from the professionals, contact the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). Their phone service is particularly helpful, with staff providing free advice.
The changing worth of having your own domain name
Only a few years ago, getting the right domain name was seen as the absolute priority for a project, which meant that the availability of a domain name could dominate the choice of a project name. Most people will agree that things have changed, because most people now use a search engine to find a website, even when they know the URL. For this reason, many people agree that the availability of a domain name is now less important when choosing a project name.
However, there’s certainly no harm in choosing a URL based on your project name, so it’s still important to do a quick whois search on your-favourite-project-name plus the main domain suffixes (see end of this section for links). More to the point, you need to do this check to ensure that no one else is using your intended project name as a domain name. If someone does have a domain based on your project name, you have to decide whether it will be a problem. It may well cause confusion if the competing website is in a similar field to yours.
There’s a potential pitfall in choosing a domain name based on the concatenation of a multiple-word project name. It’s unlikely, but the concatenation might have a different meaning. This kind of problem effects people with names like The Books Exchange.
Some free whois services:
Throw your name at Google
Most of the problems that affect name choice can be foreseen if you throw all your project names at Google (or any other search engine). It will give you a quick and free indication of whether the name is free and, if not, how it’s being used. The method of use is important. As long as you’re not infringing a trademark, it’s quite possible to give your climate modeling software the same name as a major Peruvian toothbrush company, because there’s little chance of confusing your users.
‘That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet’. Well… possibly not. If you’re thinking about choosing a project name based on a fabricated word or an acronym with no known meaning - just check that there’s definitely no known meaning. It’s always possible that your perfect name is also a popular brand of laxative (or worse) in another country. This is especially important on international projects. On this front, Google (or any other search engine) will be your embarrassment savior.
A trademark is an exclusive right supported by the law to the use of a mark (such as a name).
Before we go any further, let’s sort out the terminology. A mark is a word or words, a symbol, a logo or a combination of these. A trademark is simply a mark used by a trade to identify themselves. It has no legal significance (see below for more details). A registered trademark is a mark that has gone through the legal process of being registered. A registered trademark is the type of trademark that you need to worry about copying. Unfortunately, it is common for people to refer to a registered trademark as simply a trademark, which can make things confusing.
Registered trademarks aren’t always easy to identify. The ® symbol can be used to identify a registered trademark, but it’s not a legal necessity to use the symbol. The only way to find out whether a mark has been registered is to conduct a trademark search.
There’s a common misconception around the TM symbol. The TM symbol has no legal significance in the United Kingdom. People can use the symbol to show that they consider their mark is a trademark, but – and this is the important bit – the mark has not been registered so the TM symbol offers no legal protection at all.
Registered trademarks exist in a particular class (which is, basically, a field of business). For example, if you registered the mark GreatWare for software (UK trademark classes 9 or 42), no one could use that mark for the uses listed in that class. But someone else could use it in another class – such as agricultural products in class 31.
Registered trademarks only apply within the country in which they are registered. A UK registered trademark holds no currency in the USA, or vice versa. Within the UK there are two registered trademarks that have effect:
- UK registered trademarks – with jurisdiction within the UK. These are issued by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO).
- Community registered trademarks – with jurisdiction within all member states of the EU. These are issued by Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) in Alicante.
Assuming that their mark meets the legal constraints, anyone can register a trademark for their name. There are restrictions, mainly that the mark is distinctive (in legal terms ‘capable of distinguishing goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings’). Once they have a registered trademark the trademark holder can prevent anyone else using their name in their chosen class. And they can sue if a person or group does not stop using the name.
To be kept in force, a registered trademark must be renewed every ten years.
Most trademark infringement is accidental. The best way of side-stepping this pitfall is to do a trademark search. It’s a fairly easy procedure (described below), but it’s not foolproof. If you talk to the professionals, they will tell you that the only definite way to ensure that the mark has not been registered is to request a professional search.
To get round someone else's registration of the name you want to use it is not enough to add a qualifier or use something similar sounding – MikeRowSoft’s Office would most probably infringe the trademark held by Microsoft. There has to be a distinct difference between your chosen name and the registered trademark.
Searching for a trademark
The IPO provides an online trademark search facility that searches for both UK and Community Trademarks. To search for a trademark based on the text within the trademark, go to the text search page on the IPO website, enter your chosen text in the Trade Mark Text field and hit search. Matches to your search are shown with their ID, file date, status and image. A link will display more detailed information.
More search options are also available, which allow you to search by trademark number, proprietor and others.
Trademark your name
After all the effort you’ve put into thinking of a good name, you might want to prevent others from coming along and usurping it. You could consider trademarking the name. For more information, contact the IPO.
When you look round a shop you’ll see hundreds of products with names that use some truly dreadful fabricated names. There is method in this madness: you can’t generally trademark a generic name, but it’s many times easier to trademark a fabricated name. In other words, you can’t call your new brand of lemon juice Lemon and expect it to be trademarked, but you’re much more likely to gain a trademark for something like Jooze.
Outside of IP professionals, Passing Off is a little known law. We’re including a discussion here more for general interest. Passing Off comes into play if you misrepresent your own product as the product of someone else who has built up goodwill around their product.
Goodwill has never been summarised in a snappy manner. It can be thought of as anything that somebody has worked at to produce recognition of themselves or their product in public. Famous names that haven’t been - or can’t be - trademarked fall into this category, as do other ways of representing a product, service or brand, such as shop fronts (a major case in Passing Off law concerns someone emulating the lemon-shaped dispenser for Jif lemon.)
If you purposefully attempt to emulate a product, for example by using a very similar name to a non-trademarked but nonetheless well known name, you could fall foul of Passing Off.
Passing Off is described in more detail on the Intellectual Property Office's website.