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As I prepare to launch an online business, I'm encountering the typical startup steps. Branding and naming are important; of course you should pick an identity with an open domain name. (Visit any registrar, or even Wolfram Alpha to check.) But take precaution against having to change your name later by entering a trademark search, too.

I feel silly mentioning that a free website isn't as good as an attorney who will research and file your claim. But if you see that someone already has a trademark on your name before you even launch, you can save a lot of headache.

Just visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office website. Click the Search link on the right, then use one of the forms. I just entered my business name into the New User Form Search (Basic) and left those settings at default. Since the search came up empty, I have a good sense that once I'm ready to hire an attorney to file a trademark, I'll be the only one requesting protection of that name.

Zack Stern is building a new business from San Francisco, where he frequently contributes to PC World.

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