Adult business operators often struggle with the legal complexities of trademarks, trade names, fictitious names, and corporate names. This is particularly true for amateur performers, producers, or distributors who have operated a small business under their own personal name but want to consider doing business under a corporate or brand name. Let’s try to sort through some of the confusion.
Anyone can operate a business individually, using their personal name and social security number as their taxpayer identification number. This is known as a sole proprietorship. This simple business format is user-friendly but provides no legal protection from claims against the business, and offers no anonymity for the owner. If a personal name is used as a business brand, it can be registered as a trademark. More about trademarks later. But actors, authors, sports figures, and other celebrities frequently register their personal names as trademarks, in the class of services for which the name is being used.
An individual can operate a business under a fictitious name, also known as a “d/b/a” which stands for “doing business as”. A fictitious name is also known as a “trade name”. Most states require a business to register a fictitious name before using it to engage in commerce. Registration can occur at the state or local level – sometimes both. In some states, it is a criminal offense to use a fictitious name without a registration. The idea is to protect the public by allowing people to look up the name of the actual owner of a fictitious business name. Registering a fictitious name does not provide any legal protection for the owner of the business and does not automatically grant any intellectual property rights to the name. In other words, someone else can use the same fictitious name for a separate business, and your registration will not give you any rights to stop them. Both individuals and companies can register fictitious names. Theoretically, any stage name or website name is a fictitious name of the individual or company behind the operation, and registration of these names should be considered as an element of basic legal compliance.
Setting up a corporation or limited liability company (LLC) should be considered by any business, no matter how large or small. Conducting business through a corporate entity provides some protection against claims or debts of the company. Incorporation is often viewed as a form of cheap insurance. A corporation is considered a separate legal “person” from its owner(s) and has perpetual existence. A corporation can also obtain its own taxpayer identification number, and hold bank accounts or other property in its own name. The incorporation process is not complicated, but maintaining the corporate formalities can be challenging for small business operators who are not familiar with the process. All corporate entities should have a corporate book, records of ownership, and minutes of corporate meetings. Corporations should likewise have bylaws and shareholder agreements, while LLC’s should have operating agreements. These documents will describe how the owners are compensated, how shares are issued, and how disputes are resolved. The absence of a shareholder or operating agreement can result in significant problems, such as third parties claiming to be owners. In some instances, failure to observe the corporate formalities can also result in the individual owners becoming responsible for corporate debts or liabilities.
Corporations also provide some level of anonymity for the owners, since corporate ownership is typically not a matter of public record. The information necessary to set up a corporation varies from state to state, with some states requiring very little public information about those involved with the business. You can select any state for incorporation, regardless of the physical location of the business. Typically, however, a corporation must appoint a registered agent who is physically located in the state of incorporation.
Your corporate name need not be your business brand name. As noted above, a corporation can register a fictitious name that represents its brand. But in some circumstances, it can also register the name as a trademark.
Trademark registration is an important consideration for any business. If your brand name meets certain criteria and does not conflict with the rights of third parties, you may restrict others from using the same or similar brand for your business. Protecting your brand is essential, and a trademark can often become your most valuable business asset. In the event anyone infringes on your brand name, having a registered trademark can provide an expedited path toward resolution of the dispute. Importantly, not all brand names qualify for trademark registration. Brands which are generic, or merely descriptive of the business’s products or services, typically will not be accepted for registration as trademarks. In some cases, use of a descriptive brand for a sufficient period of time will allow for trademark registration, if the mark has acquired distinctiveness in the marketplace.
Trademarks can be registered at the state level, or at the federal level with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). In order to qualify for federal registration, the brand must be used in some form of interstate commerce. Often, businesses will wait until they are actually using a brand before applying for registration. However, the USPTO allows business owners to file a trademark application if they have a bona fide intent to use the brand in the future. Filing the application sets your priority date and allows you to prevent others from using the same or confusingly similar brand in the future, so long as you ultimately receive a trademark registration.
Trademarks can be owned by corporations or individuals. The owner of the trademark will have the power to control the use of the brand name, and the power to license that brand for use by third parties. Sexually explicit trademarks have historically been refused registration by the USPTO, but that may change depending on a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that is expected in the near future. Many adult business operators have sought registration of explicit brand names in the hopes that the Supreme Court will clear the way for registration soon.
Choosing the right name and structure for your business is an important decision for any adult business operator. Your brand name represents the reputation and goodwill of your business. Some brands may conflict with the trademark rights of other operators, so careful consideration should be paid when selecting your trade name, corporate name, or trademark. After some initial legwork, you can find the perfect brand name, and protect it from infringers for the life of your business.
Lawrence G. Walters heads up Walters Law Group, www.firstamendment.com. Nothing in this article is intended as legal advice.