If your record label is a registered business, then your label name is your trade name. According to the Small Business Administration, a trade name is an official name under which a company does business. It also is referred to as a DBA, or "doing business as" name, fictitious name, or assumed name.
When you're operating a business that offers a similar service as competitors, the rules for copyrighting that trade name might surprise you.
Trade Names and Copyrights
Trade names are not officially protected under copyright law, so someone could start a record label using the same name as yours. As the SBA puts it, "A trade name does not afford any brand protection or provide you with unlimited rights for the use of that name."
That might sound a little scary, but most record labels will not meet the requirements for qualifying for a trademark. A trademark is a branding of a service or product that you can prove to be unique from what other companies are offering. There is very little room to do that as a record label. Unless you've invented a new recording technique or invented a different way for pressing physical album copies, your record label isn't doing anything unique.
However, just because you probably won't be able to trademark your record label name doesn't mean there aren't things you can do to keep your label branding strong. Obviously, you'll have a website with a domain name that matches your label name as closely as possible, but it might be worth buying a few domain names that are really close, like the .net or .org versions.
Build a Unique Brand
Have a label logo and a distinct set of catalog numbers for your products. Always promote your label along with your new releases and create social media accounts with your unique logo and personality or voice. What's more, get your artists to be brand ambassadors who represent the face of your label.
Make building your record label's identity a priority in case someone else does come along and think up the same name or tries to infringe on your success by choosing a similar name. The more established you are, the less likely someone is going to be successful with the idea of ripping off your name. Anyone serious about establishing their own business will realize that they are much better off building their own label brand.
Applying for a Trademark
While trade names are not protected under copyright law, other intellectual property, such as company logos, can be protected as a trademark. For example, the script Coca-Cola with extended lines coming from both Cs is a company logo that is trademarked.
In the event that you are going to apply for a trademark for your company logo, understand the proper steps to take. Applications can be filed online relatively quickly at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website.
Before filling out the paperwork, you should search the USPTO's database to make sure no other companies have already trademarked a similar logo. You also must determine your basis for filing, which means determining if you are seeking to protect property that already is in "use in commerce" or if you are seeking to protect property that you have an "intent to use." Note that intent is defined as more than just a preliminary idea. It should be market ready. Depending on which basis you choose, you'll be expected to provide dates for when the protected property first was used.
From there, you should be prepared to fill out the paperwork online, but working with an attorney is highly recommended when going through the process. The USPTO will likely take several months to approve or deny your application.
Legal Advice and Record Labels
Of course, you should seek advice from a legal professional in any business matters where you're not sure of the law, or if you think someone is trying to steal your intellectual property or ideas. Ideally, your legal expert is familiar with the specifics of the recording industry and is up to date on current rules and regulations.