Your chosen business name is taken: What are your options?

If you don't want to be taken to court or undergo an expensive rebrand, make sure you check with Companies House if your name is available

A company can live or die on the strength of its name; some of the most recognisable brands in the world are those with the simplest and most memorable monikers.

As such, choosing a compelling name is one of the most crucial and exciting moments of starting a business. But what if you’ve settled on the perfect title only to find that it’s already been snapped up by someone else?

To avoid this, it’s vital to carry out a thorough check to see if anyone else is using your name (see our section on choosing a business name here). Ideally, this will show that your name is completely free to use.

But if instead you discover a company with the same or a similar name what are your options…?

What if your proposed name belongs to a limited company?

If this is the case it’s bad news: If your proposed name belongs to a limited company (private or public) or limited liability partnership registered at Companies House, and you are also looking to incorporate a limited company or LLP, you will have to go back to the drawing board.

You can’t register a business with a name that is the ‘same as’ that of any other on the index of limited companies and LLPs (‘same as’ means similar enough to cause confusion among customers).

What if you suspect it has been registered opportunistically?

Also know as ‘name squatting’, this involves people opportunistically registering names at Companies House to try and sell it on to its ‘rightful’ owner for a profit or to prevent someone else from registering it.

You may have a case here: If  you suspect a company name has been registered at Companies House you are able can make a claim to the Company Names Tribunal at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO).

However, the claimant must be able to show that they have sufficient ‘goodwill’ in the name and that the other company was acting in bad faith. The claimant must also be able to prove that their rights have been in some way adversely affected.

What if another sole trader is using your name?

If you plan to register as a sole trader and you find another sole trader in a different part of the country is already using your name, this shouldn’t be a problem.

However, if the company operates locally or nationally, or if there is any risk of confusion among customers, you should try choosing a different name. If you don’t, you run the risk of being sued for “passing off” (trading off another company’s goodwill and reputation by copying their name or branding). This also applies to sole traders that start trading under the name of a pre-existing limited company, or vice versa.

What if your name is similar to a trademarked name?

Unfortunately, if your name is too similar to one that has been registered as a trade mark, you will definitely need to select another.

You can check this by running a search on the UK Trade Mark Register on the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) website. Unlike passing off claims, the owner of a trade mark does not have to show that there was confusion among consumers or that they have goodwill associated with the mark. Registering a trade mark gives you exclusive rights to use it nationally within the relevant class.

What next?

Performing these simple checks initially can save you much time, money and hassle later on. Not only could you find yourself as the defendant in a trade mark infringement or passing off claim, you may also have to absorb the cost of rebranding your business and replacing your signage, stationery, etc.

Once you have found a name that is available and ticks all the boxes, another important consideration is whether or not a suitable website domain name is also up for grabs. Read our guide on how to choose and secure the right domain name here.

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  1. Natasha-8
    Edit profile

    Hi I set up a service and gave it a name it’s a coaching programme for women leaders Another company has asked me to change the name because they have a service an awards ceremony that uses the first word of my programme name. I’ve found lots on the legalities around company names but can’t find anything that relates to services. This word is not trademarked or registered as a company name. They have used it for a few years in wales to promote their awards ceremony and I am in wales but my market will be the uk and global running personal development groups and masterminds. Although they are different services they both are for women’s empowerment. Mine being for women leaders and theirs being for women in employment (courses etc) these are under their company name which is a different name. Do you have any info on this situation? I am meeting them next week to discuss

  2. Startups Ian
    Edit profile

    Hi Natasha,

    I’m not sure if this will help, but there was a case last year involving Nokia and a start-up called Lowdownapp, which used the word HERE for a service it had launched. Nokia disputed this as it had invested millions in establishing a mapping service.

    We published a legal article about the case: http://startups.co.uk/david-vs-goliath-trade-mark-battles-where-does-your-start-up-stand/

    Nokia eventually sold the HERE unit to Mercedes, which goes some way to explaining why it was so protective of the IP. http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2015/12/10/what-nokias-sale-of-here-means/#2715e4857a0bf64cfdd1263c

    Lowdownapp now offers the same service under the name ARRIVED. http://www.lowdownapp.co/

    I hope that helps, perhaps demonstrating that companies can protect a service and use of a particular word if they feel a company is ‘passing off’. I’m sure it would also be worthwhile taking some legal advice.

    Thanks.