For US companies, the Madrid Protocol can be a low-cost and time-efficient way of getting international trademark protection.
The internet makes it almost trivial to sell products and services internationally. But how do you manage the IP for these products and services? The legal system has been lagging here. Although the 1970’s (pre-internet) PCT system simplifies the process of filing international patents, the underlying international patent system still remains cumbersome and expensive. In the end, you still have to hire local law firms in each country and work with the local patent offices.
What is the situation in trademarks? Almost reasonable! This is because, in the early post-internet era, the international trademark system got a major upgrade, called the Madrid Protocol. So if you are a startup wanting to protect your trademark rights internationally, the Madrid Protocol is a reasonable and cost-effective way to do so.
The Madrid Protocol is a 1996-era refinement of an earlier 1891 Madrid trademark agreement. The US and over 90 other countries (EU included) are presently members (see the darker countries on the world map). Brazil and Canada also recently joined in 2019.
The main advantage of the Madrid Protocol is that the applicant needs to only file once in the WIPO Madrid system in order to apply for trademark applications in a variety of different countries (such as the entire European Union at a single time). The application fees, at least by patent standards, are reasonable (e.g. about $1600 to apply for full EU coverage). This system minimizes the hassles and expense of hiring local law firms and dealing with local trademark offices in each country.
There are a few catches – the applicant must be associated with a Madrid subscribing country. You can’t start from scratch – rather you should have at least one national trademark application pending (and preferably issued), to form the basis of your Madrid application. US applicants, for example, can use their pre-existing US trademark to file for Madrid coverage through the USPTO. The USPTO will check this Madrid application, and then forward it to the WIPO office in Geneva, Switzerland.
Some other cautions — in the event that your original national trademark application fails within the first five years after filing, your other Madrid filings will likely also fail. Additionally, the various local countries that you designate do have the right to refuse your trademark on an individual basis within the first 12-18 months after filing.
So additional research before filing is recommended. At a minimum, check the WIPO trademark database for conflicts within your trademark class. Check if your US trademarks might be “generic” or otherwise inappropriate in your Madrid target countries. Madrid Protocol filings must be renewed every 10 years, so remember to put this on your long-term calendar as well.