On a Monday night in November, a dozen start-up business owners gathered in downtown Richmond for an introduction to trademark law. They came from various business backgrounds, from social media to construction, from composting to perfume making, to figure out what initial steps they needed to take to establish and protect their brands. There to advise them on the matter were three students from Richmond Law’s Intellectual Property & Transactional Law Clinic.

The event was part of a partnership between the clinic and RVA Works, a nonprofit group aimed at helping entrepreneurs start new businesses.

Travis Bice, L’16; Alan Carpenter, L’16; and Bradford Schulz, L’16, created an original presentation to break down trademarks to first-time business owners. “We tried to come up with some kind of creative backstory” to make the material more accessible, explained Carpenter. Enter Darla Diligence and Al Apathy, two fictional characters exploring the complicated world of trademark law. The participants followed along as Darla and Al created their businesses, established their trademarks, and learned how to protect and police those marks (with varying degrees of success).

The idea behind the presentation was to take the students’ education on trademark law “from theoretical to practical,” explained Ashley Dobbs, director of the clinic and assistant clinical professor of law, by interacting with people with real-world questions and problems through the RVA Works program.  

Now in its second year, RVA Works will have seen 25 people graduate in January 2016, with 65 percent of its participants coming from low-income households. The students fielded questions from the business owners: What about patents? What happens to the trademark if the business closes? What’s the difference between a word mark and a design mark? Can packaging be a trademark?

The student presenters were careful to give broad legal information, not legal advice, and were careful to unpack legal terminology and processes. “You don’t need federal trademark registration, necessarily, to use a mark, but if you want to keep other people from using that mark, you want to have that protection,” said Bice. “Ultimately the end question for a market is, ‘Is your product's name confusingly similar to another’s product name?” explained Schulz.

In the end, they accomplished their professor’s goal: “To really consider the legal issues for small, low-budget start-up businesses, [and] to get asked those tough, real-world questions first-hand.”