Choosing a name for your company usually involves a pen, a note pad and a lot of head scratching.  You want to pick a name that people will remember – something catchy – which is easy to write or type. But what don’t you want?

Easy. You don’t want a name for your company which violates someone’s trademark. And you don’t want to pick a name which is illegal.

Trademarks and company names

We’re lucky that in Canada and the United States, there are federal databases for trademark registrations. Other jurisdictions around the world have them too, but let’s keep the focus on Canada for a moment. Trademarks are a form of intellectual property which entitle the owner of the trademark to exclude others from using their trademark for unauthorized purposes. Who decides what’s an authorized purpose? The owner of the trademark.

In Canada, CIPO is where you’ll want to run a first check of the name for your company through the trademarks database in order to see if it is actually part of someone else’s trademark.

Sometimes, a company doesn’t go as far as registering a trademark, but will use a trade name (or “nom d’emprunt” in French). Think of it as a form of unregistered trademark. This unregistered form of intellectual property also entitles the owner to some rights (although not as clear cut as the registered form). For this reason, the federal government requires incorporators to submit a NUANS report prior to incorporation which shows that no other federal corporation uses the proposed name for your company. Most provinces and territories will have similar requirements.

One of the trickiest issues comes up when a corporation has incorporated without a specific name – meaning the corporate registrar has simply assigned a number (ex. 1234567 Canada Inc.). These corporations may also have trade names which they have indicated to the corporate registrar, but it won’t be readily apparent because of the numbered legal name. So keep an eye out for those when picking a name for your company.

Language laws and naming regulations

You also need to think about applicable language laws and naming regulations. For example, you can’t pick a corporate name which is obscene, prohibited by law, misleading or otherwise restricted by regulation.

Little known fact: you can’t call your CBCA incorporated company “Parliament Hill Inc.”

And you also need to make sure that if you are doing business in Québec, you have a French language version of your name – even if your name is a made up word with no obvious French language equivalent.

So before you settle on a name for your company, before you begin investing money in logo design and brand image, run the name by your lawyer or trademark agent.