Business names and trademarks – are these the same thing?

SINGAPORE – The word “meta” has been in the spotlight recently, as part of the new name of Facebook’s parent company.

The technology giant had announced on Oct 28 that it would be changing its name from Facebook to Meta Platforms.

It also said the rebranding was to signal the change in focus to building the metaverse, which generally refers to shared virtual world environments that people can access via the Internet.

But the name change has its own hurdles. Facebook is being accused of trademark infringement by other companies in the United States with “meta” in their names.

They are Arizona-based start-up Meta PC and Chicago-based tech firm Meta Company, according to media outlets.

Can such a situation occur in Singapore?

The Straits Times looks into using business names and trademarks here.

Q. Is there a record of business names used in Singapore?

A: The Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) keeps a record of business entities here.

Under the law, any person who wishes to carry on business activities in Singapore is required to register a business with Acra. The person must reserve a business name during registration.

Similarly, a business owner who wants to change the name of his business must apply to Acra for the change.

Q. Is registering a business name the same as registering a trademark in Singapore?

A: Registering a business name with Acra is different from registering a trademark. Both applications are separate processes and handled by different agencies.

To register a trademark, a business owner or company has to apply separately to the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.

Unlike a business name, a trademark can be a picture or a sound, among other things.

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Q. Can Company A, which has successfully registered a business name here, stop Company B from registering or using the name as a trademark?

A: A business name registration does not give the business owner any rights, including intellectual property ones, to the name.

Company A’s registration prevents Company B only from registering the identical word or phrase as a business name with Acra.

Q. Can Company A, which has a registered trademark here, stop Company B from using the trademark as a business name?

A: The successful registration of a name as a trademark does not automatically prevent other business owners from registering the name with Acra.

But Company A can apply to the courts for an order to stop Company B from using the trademark, said Pinsent Masons MPillay lawyer Bryan Tan.

“If the application succeeds, Company A can then make a name complaint application to Acra over Company B’s use of the trademark as a business name,” he said.

Acra will then direct Company B to change its business name if it decides that Company A’s application is valid.

Q. Can there be a situation where a company has a name that is different from its brand?

A: “It is not uncommon for companies to use different company and brand names,” said Ms Sheena Jacob of CMS Holborn Asia. For example, people are familiar with Google, but the holding company’s name is Alphabet Inc, said the lawyer.

Mr Alban Kang, a lawyer at Bird & Bird ATMD, said a company might acquire goodwill, or reputation, in its name if it trades under that name here over a period of time.

The company might be able to sue any other companies – which are also using the name here – for “passing off” as its business.

“If the lawsuit succeeds, it can get an injunction to stop the firm from using the name, or even damages,” Mr Kang said.

This remedy is available even if the business name was not already registered earlier as a trademark here, he said.

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Q. How do companies avoid potential trademark infringement lawsuits when seeking to register their brand or name as a trademark?

A: Ms Jacob said that large global companies generally conduct trademark clearance searches around the world before launching or adopting a new brand.

“In this way, a company knows what to expect well in advance of the launch,” she said.

A company might also offer to buy a trademark from another company that had earlier registered it, said Mr Kang.

But Mr Tan said this is not the case for small companies.

“They would usually bite the bullet and change their name,” he said.

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