Trademarks and service marks are “signs” used in commerce to distinguish one manufacturer or service provider from another; they are in essence brands. These signs could be a word, logo, image a stylistic word or any other sign that can be used to show one brand owner from another. They are related to the specific goods or services for which the mark is used.
In trademark law in most countries, including the US, UK and Europe, all goods and services that could be sold have been divided into forty-five classes. The first thirty four classes cover goods and are considered to be trademarks; classes thirty five to forty five are for services, and are defined as service marks. Other than this distinction, trademarks and service marks are essentially the same thing, and it is possible in many countries to register a trademark which includes both goods and services.
To explain the distinction between goods and services a good example is to consider a fast food chain such as a burger restaurant. It is likely to have franchises or outlets as well as specific types of burger. The burgers they sell are obviously goods, but the outlet itself is likely to have a sign above the shop and be providing you with a service, and they may even sell you goods which they do not manufacture themselves, e.g. soft drinks. In this scenario they are likely to own a trade mark for the burgers (but not for the drinks) and a service mark registration for restaurant services.
A trade mark or service mark can be either a registered mark or unregistered. If it is a registered mark, the company that own the brand have filed an application for a trade mark at the government’s intellectual property office, and have paid a fee. The intellectual property office have then reviewed the application to see if the mark is acceptable within the remits of that country’s trade mark law, reviewed the register of trademarks to see if it conflicts with a prior registration, and (in most countries) published it in a public journal so that any third parties who may see a conflict with the new mark and a mark which they are using, can oppose the mark if they wish. If the mark is deemed acceptable and there are no oppositions (or they are not successful) then the mark will be registered. A trade mark registration will normally be valid for a set period of time (ten years in the USA and Europe) but as long as it still in use it can be renewed after this period, without having to reregister.
An unregistered mark is any mark that is being used as a brand, but has not been registered at the government’s intellectual property office. Most countries do give rights for unregistered trademarks, however most brand owners will register their mark. The reasons for registering are that it is much harder, and more costly in the courts to protect an unregistered trademark. It is also easier to protect your brand against infringement if you have a valid trademark registration, and to prevent people using a name that could be similar to the brand. One final fringe benefit is that intellectual property is property, and so has a value and can be bought and sold, and a valid trademark or service mark registration makes the brand appear more valuable to potential purchasers.