Just as copyright protects songs' lyrics and music, a trademark administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office enables musicians to keep anyone else from using the same stage name or band name they choose. A band has common law rights to its name simply by using it, but federal registration provides additional benefits, including the ability to sue imposters in federal court.
Confirming Your Name's Uniqueness
Before you start the process of registration, you need to do some research to make sure no other bands or artists are using the same name. You can start by searching the USPTO's database of registered marks, but you should also check search engines and industry websites. Since approval of your trademark application hinges on avoiding the likelihood of confusion with any preexisting marks, you also want to look at brand names outside the music industry. For example, the USPTO would be unlikely to approve an application by a rock band wishing to be called "Nike," since the sportswear company by that name is so well known.
Choosing Between State and Federal Protection
Federal trademark protection requires that you use or intend to use the mark in interstate commerce, meaning you sell albums or perform in different states. If you're planning on making your new album available on the Internet, you've likely already satisfied this requirement. In contrast, a state trademark only protects your band's name within the borders of that state. However, since federal trademarks take a long time to process, you might benefit from a state mark in the meantime. The forms and fees required vary from state to state, with information available in each state's office.
Application and Registration
You can file a federal trademark application yourself online, although the USPTO recommends hiring a private trademark attorney to make sure you've done everything correctly and the application review process runs smoothly. Once your application is completed, the USPTO recommends checking its status every three to four months. It can take as long as several years for a trademark application to be approved and registered. Once your mark is registered, you may legally use the "®" symbol. Before that point, placing a "TM" after your band name provides notice to the public that you have claimed a trademark in the name.
Advantages of a Federal Trademark
While you aren't legally required to trademark your band name, doing so provides many advantages you wouldn't otherwise enjoy. For example, you may find that someone unaffiliated with you or your group has started a website with your band name in the URL. If your band name is a registered trademark, you can sue that person in federal court and have the website shut down. You can also use your U.S. registration to register the trademark in other countries.