Even a year or two ago, naming your business was pretty much a local affair. Choose a snappy name, check to see that no one else is using it in your city, town or state, register it as an assumed business name with your county clerk or state Secretary of State, and that was it. Now, thanks to the Internet and the World Wide Web, naming your business can have national and international implications.

Catching Customers on the Web

It seems as if every advertisement now ends with an invitation to reach the business at " www-dot-something-dot-com." The www stands for World Wide Web, which is part of the Internet, a vast network of computers all over the world.

Businesses, large and small, are rushing to the Web because with a Web site, they can reach potential customers all over the world. Anyone, anywhere, whose computer is connected to the Internet can visit a Web site and see what the business has to offer. The Web has become a kind of international yellow pages, converting local businesses into national or international ones.

The ABC'S of the WWW

If you've got a computer, a modem, the right software and an account with an Internet Service Provider (ISP), you can tap into the World Wide Web and view documents (called Web pages) that may feature text, graphics, sound and animation. You can also " surf," or move from one Web page to another, anywhere in the world, with the click of the computer mouse and for the price of a local phone call.

Choosing a Name with the Web in Mind

If you are starting a business, you may well want to establish a Web site--if not right now, then when your business is up and running--to showcase your goods or services. It's important to name your business with that thought in mind.

Just a year or two ago, in pre-Web days, all you would have had to be concerned about, legally, was choosing a name that wouldn't confuse customers in the geographic area you planned to serve.

There were just a few fairly obvious rules to follow, such as not using a name that someone else was already using in that locality, or aping a famous name. (Just ask a business that called itself " McSomething's" how long it took to get a threatening letter from McDonald's legal office.)

But the Web ignores local, state and national boundaries. If you're planning to establish a presence on the Web, you'll be sending your business name all over the country. So before you start using a name, and investing time and money in making it well known, you should search the entire country for identical or very similar business names. This process is known as a trademark search. (A business name is a " service mark," which is a kind of trademark.) You can do a search yourself or hire a professional search firm, which usually costs several hundred dollars.

Even if you aren't interested in the Web, remember that other businesses--thousands of them--are. So you should still do a national trademark search when naming your business. A business may already be using the name you're considering. And if it markets its goods or services on the Web, it can later force you to change your business name, since its marketing territory will overlap with yours and customers might be confused. The fact that you registered your business name with the local county clerk or as a corporate name with your state won't protect you against an aggressive Web marketer who was using the name before you did.

Looking Beyond the States

As more businesses establish sites on the World Wide Web, choosing your business name may even involve international trademark issues. For instance, if your business name appears on the Web, you may run into a problem if it conflicts with a trademark registered in another country. The Web makes such disputes more likely because it makes discovery of the conflict more likely.

Most industrialized countries, including the United States, have signed international trademark treaties that make it possible for trademark owners in one country to enforce their rights against trademark owners in another country. Because the Web is so new, it's not yet clear how big a problem this will be for U.S. trademark owners.

Your best strategy for finding a name that does not conflict with an international trademark is to conduct a thorough international trademark search. This is likely to cost some money, because it is hard to do yourself. However, as the world becomes smaller and smaller, an international search will make more and more economic sense.

Choosing Your Internet Address

When you're playing around with a proposed business name, you should also investigate whether you'll be able to use it in your Internet address.

Each Web site has its own address, which includes something called a " domain name" . For example, the address of the Nolo Press Web site is http://www.nolo.com. The " nolo.com" part of Nolo's address is the domain name.

Using all or part of your business name as your domain name makes your Web site easier for potential customers to find. Because Nolo uses its business name as its domain name, it is easy for people who know the Nolo name to find our Web site.

To obtain a domain name, you need to register it with the InterNic, a nonprofit organization under contract with the federal government. This a relatively easy process.

The InterNic will not register the same domain name to more than one person or entity. For the most part, it's first come, first served. To see if someone else is using the domain name you want to use, do a thorough domain name search. To conduct a simple search, enter your proposed domain name into your Web browser software and see what turns up. Or, visit tabnet.com.

To go one step further, you may also want to find out whether someone else has a similar--not just an identical--domain name. For instance, if the distinctive part of your proposed business name is Briarwood, think twice about using it if you discover a Web site with the address http://www.Briarwoody.com.

InterNic will register such a similar domain name, but you might still be vulnerable to a charge of trademark infringement because of the likelihood of customer confusion--confusion that could hurt your business, too. As you can see, settling on a domain name raises the same issues as does deciding on a proposed business name.

It was predicted, 35 years ago, that electronic communications would one day conjoin the entire world into a " global village." Television began that process, and the World Wide Web has nearly completed it. Now your business can be viewed as the equivalent of one more blanket spread in a village square that, without barriers, extends from California to Maine, from England to Singapore. The name you give your business must distinguish your blanket from the millions of other blankets in that square.

Copyright © 1999 Nolo.com, Inc.