FORTUNE Small Business:

When do trademarks expire?

A reader considers getting a trademark, but wonders how long the protection will last.

By Anne Fisher, FSB Magazine

(FSB Magazine) -- Dear FSB: How long does it take to obtain a trademark? And how long will one protect my idea? --Chuck Christenson II, CBC Industries Columbus, Neb.

Dear Chuck: Getting a trademark through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office takes about 15 months. It's pretty cheap: The initial application fee is $375 to file on paper and $325 electronically. For all the details, go to http://www.uspto.gov/main/trademarks.htm.

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You don't need a lawyer to get a trademark, but it would be worth your while to retain one to defend it. Your trademark is valid forever as long as a stern letter from your lawyer warns any would-be imitators that they are infringing on it.

"The key is constant vigilance," says Richard Mallsby, a USPTO spokesman. "The big companies behind trademarked brands like Band-Aid and Styrofoam all have lawyers who are careful to keep those names from becoming generic terms."

Once a brand name passes into such common usage that no one regards it as a proper noun anymore, its trademark can be ruled invalid, and anyone can capitalize on all the marketing you've put into it. (That's what happened to "Escalator": The company that owned the name let it become synonymous with moving staircases, and lost the trademark.)

Have you trademarked an idea? Did you have an idea that was stolen before you were able to trademark it? Post your thoughts on the Ask FSB blog.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.