Certification Marks: How They Compare to Trademarks

What is a Certification Mark?

A certification mark is a name, logo, or picture used to demonstrate a particular product or service complies with a certain set of standards. Unlike a trademark, a certification mark does not distinguish between the source of the product or service. With a certification mark, an independent party establishes a set of requirements for their certification mark. When a company meets those requirements, they can request the right to use the certification mark on its products to indicate they have met certain standards.


Differences Between Certification Marks and Trademarks

There are two main differences between certification marks and trademarks:

1.      The owner of a certification mark cannot use the mark on its own products or services. Rather, the owner authorizes others to use the certification mark. However, the owner must maintain control over the mark. Generally, this is achieved by ensuring any products using the mark meet a specific set of standards.


2.      A certification mark does not indicate the source of a product or service. A trademark is used to distinguish the source of the product or services from those of another producer.

Nike Swoosh Trademark

For example, the famous Nike swoosh logo represents that Nike is the source of the product sporting that logo. A t-shirt with the swoosh logo tells consumers that the producer of the t-shirt is Nike. This is a classic example of a trademark being used to identify the source of a product.

Energy Star Certification Mark.png

A certification mark, on the other hand, does not tell consumers the source of the product, but rather that the product met certain standards. For example, if the EPA’s “Energy Star” certification mark appears on a vacuum cleaner, it certifies that the vacuum has met certain energy efficiency standards. The EPA is not producing the vacuum cleaner, it is simply certifying that the vacuum has met certain standards. Therefore, it would be common to see both the following marks on a vacuum.

Why are certification marks important?

Many businesses value certification marks because it is a way to demonstrate the quality of their products or services. A business must meet a specific set of standards from an outside organization to receive the rights to use a certain certification mark. By displaying a certification mark, the business is communicating with its customers as to the quality of the product. Certification marks may be licensed to businesses for a royalty or licensing fee, or the certification marks may be used without royalties.

Types of Certification Marks

  1. ·Geographic Origin – this certification mark describes where a product came from.

  2. Characteristics of the Good or Services – this certification mark describes certain characteristics of the goods or services.

  3. Work or Labor Group – this certification mark shows the product was manufactured by a union or other organization.

Grown in Idaho.jpg
Fair Trade Certified.png

Advantages of Certification Marks

  • Owners have complete control over the certification mark. Owners may license the certification mark to anyone meeting their standards. This This licensing arrangement can be for a one-time fee, an on-going royalty, or no monetary compensation.

  • Owners are protected from others trying to use a similar mark.

  • Owners act as a third party certifying certain quality standards for products and services.


Registering a Certification Mark

Certification marks are regulated by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the process for registering a certification mark is similar to registering a trademark. After a certification mark is registered, owners must follow these rules to maintain their registrations:

·        Non-discrimination – An owner must grant the right to use the certification mark to any company that meets the standards of certification.

·        Exclusivity of Use – An owner cannot use the mark for any purpose other than certification.

·        Standards – An owner must establish clear standards for the mark.

·        Objectivity – An owner cannot sell their own products or services using the mark. This does not prevent the owner from manufacturing or selling products, only from using the certification mark on its own products. 

For more information about trademarks, certification marks, or other areas of intellectual property, feel free to reach out to us. We’re happy to help.