The United States Patent and Trademark Office recently issued a caution, saying that a number of private companies are spamming trademark applicants and registrants. These spammers are leading unsuspecting applicants and registrants to believe payment of a fee to the company is required to maintain their application or registration. 

Don’t get punk’d by these spammers! Even if they are offering legitimate services, you’re never required to pay any organization outside of the USPTO to maintain your trademark rights.  

Trademark spammers aren’t the only threat to watch out for at the USPTO. Patent trolls are also currently on the prowl, out to sue whomever they can. You could very well be caught completely unaware, blindsided with a patent troll letter demanding you either appear in court or pay a hefty settlement fee.

If you’re seeking patent or trademark protection in the U.S. via the USPTO, you need to be aware of how to identify trademark spammers and how to handle a patent troll.

What Are Trademark Spammers?

A trademark spammer is a company or individual mailing trademark holders or applicants, frequently creating the perception that the communication is sent from an official government organization. In the letter, the spammer asks for a fee in a short time frame, such as two weeks, and makes it seem that the recipient will experience major repercussions if they do not comply. 

Related: Yes, You Need a Registered Copyright

Usually, they will have a very official-sounding name (like “The United States Trademark Company”) and only sometimes will they print that they’re not affiliated with the USPTO. The letters are generally very legitimate in appearance — for example, containing the seal of the USPTO.  

An easy way to determine whether the communication is legitimate is simply by identifying where and to whom the communication was sent. If the trademark owner received the letter but used a trademark attorney to file the application on his/her behalf, then that letter can be thrown away as all official communication will go the correspondence address (physical and email) associated with the trademark in the USPTO. To be sure, send the communication to your attorney and they’ll confirm that the trash bin is the appropriate location to file the letter.  

What Are Patent Trolls?

Letters from patent trolls are a different beast altogether. A patent troll is a derogatory term used for a non-practicing entity. In this case, a non-practicing entity is a company that owns a lot of patents — up in the thousands — and then goes around enforcing their patents on people who they believe are infringing upon them. However, the entity isn’t producing a product for their patents. They just hoard up all the patents they can and then sue potential infringers in order to make some quick money. Patent trolls are an economic drain.

Keep in mind that not all non-practicing entities are patent trolls. Universities are also non-practicing entities, but they have research and discovered technology to protect, even though they don’t make a product. Universities are much less likely to sue an infringer, opting instead to license protected technology to users. 

Why Doesn’t the Government Do Something About This?

At the end of the day, most of these spammers and trolls aren’t doing anything technically illegal and they can be quite profitable, so they continue on. 

Unfortunately, spammers have a lot of sly marketing tactics at their disposal to get inventors to bite the bait. Currently, there’s not a lot of lobbying support for regulations or rules pertaining to these types of spammers, so getting anything passed through Congress to limit their activity would be difficult. Likewise, patent trolls are a problem that still hasn’t been addressed by Congress. There’s no straightforward way to limit their activity.

What to Do if You’re Approached by a Trademark Spammer or Patent Troll

While a trademark spam letter (which will look like a letter asking for payment in exchange for something related to your patent or trademark) can be given to your attorney and then more or less ignored, a patent troll letter will look like a cease and desist and it does have to be dealt with in a timely manner.

In many cases, the sender, often a lawyer, will attach a filed suit or complaint against you. They’ll give you a set number of days to settle with them before you’re required to go to court and defend yourself. For some companies, it’s worth it to fight the patent troll in court; for others, it’s better to just settle. 

Related: What to Do When YOU Get a Cease and Desist

The bottom line: Be on the lookout for a proliferation of junk mail and spam after you file a patent or trademark. If you receive a letter regarding your IP and it asks for $800 in return for help with your invention, chuck it in the trash. If you receive a cease and desist letter from an attorney claiming you’re infringing upon a patent, take it to your own patent attorney immediately.