Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but not when it infringes on your trademark and undermines your business. You become known for your trademark in the marketplace, so you simply have to protect that investment. Without your trademark, you would have to start over, which can be dangerously costly for your business.

Here are some tips to protect your trademark:

Start Smart. Protecting your trademark starts with choosing one that does not make you vulnerable to infringement lawsuits from others. As soon as you need a trademark, hire a reputable attorney to help you make certain your choice is a safe one that no one else is using, as well as one that cannot be easily stolen. Your lawyers can advise you how to use your mark properly and help you avoid the need for defensive measures down the road. If you try to go it alone, fixing problems after the fact will cost you more in legal fees than obtaining expert help from the beginning.

Know the law. With the exception of famous marks, be aware that two companies can legally use the same name as long as they are not competing with one another in the marketplace. For example, a company that sells computer software could share the same trademark as a company that sells a food product.

Keep an eye on your trademark in the marketplace. A trademark watch service, which looks for anything that could potentially be an infringement of your mark, can be an excellent investment, but choose one that investigates all areas in which your company has a market share. If your products or services are sold internationally, you need a service that looks for infringements globally. Remember that the Google Alerts service is not always comprehensive, nor does it give you any information about activity in domain registries or the Trademark Office registry.

Register your trademark wherever you do business. If your company is working outside of the U.S., you should file registrations in every country where you sell your products or services. Otherwise, you have no trademark rights beyond the shores of the United States.

Stop infringements before they do damage. Search for trademark infringements at least monthly, as the Patent and Trademark Office allows opposition applications to be filed within 30 days of a new trademark approval.

Don’t take any infringement lightly, no matter how small. If you haven’t formally registered your trademark, you could run the risk of losing your legal right to it. While you may think it isn’t worth writing to a small company that is using your mark, what if that company grows or its products are inferior, giving the mark a bad reputation? What if the products are well outside of what your brand stands for? The best advice is to consult an attorney to determine if you should pursue an infringer and nip the infringement in the bud immediately. Otherwise, your customers could become confused about who you are, and this could ultimately have a direct impact on your bottom line – one that may be hard to trace or quantify but is a reality just the same.

Have a law firm on retainer. Your lawyers will then be ready to send an appropriate cease and desist letter to any company that has infringed your trademark. The wording of these letters is important, and a “one size fits all” approach may not fly. When done correctly, these letters can prevent litigation. When done poorly, they can cause unnecessary litigation. An attorney can also advise you about possible compromises in an effort to save you court costs.

Always renew your trademark when you are required to do so. Neglecting this task is a recipe for losing your legal right to your mark.

Use the correct sign for your particular trademark. TM is for common law trademarks, which are those that have not been registered. SM is for common law servicemarks, and R is for federally-registered trademarks. While it isn’t necessary to include the sign every time your company’s name is mentioned, it needs to be used consistently in the most prominent places on signage, packaging, advertising, and websites

Claim your trademark in your communications. Besides using the correct sign, language that sets forth your copyright (which can be drafted by your lawyers) is also advised on all of your company’s publications and packaging.

Be consistent. In order to prevent an infringer from claiming that your trademark is not yours, maintain the same logo, font, colors, and spelling for your mark.

The way your customers perceive your company can make or break the future of your business. Make sure you take steps to protect what you have built.