Trademarks are assets of a company. Just like any other asset, they can be bought and sold. However, unlike other assets, trademarks cannot generally be sold by themselves. In other words, a trademark must be sold with something else, something which is related to the trademark. A trademark assignment is the typical mechanism by which a trademark is transferred.
Proper Trademark Assignment
A trademark assignment is either or both of the act of transferring a trademark and the document by which the trademark is actually transferred. Companies will transfer a trademark when they are bought or acquired, or when a specific service or product line is sold or spun off. A trademark assignment actually changes the ownership of the trademark from the first party to the second.
A trademark assignment, if done properly, will usually identify and state a few things. First, the document will identify the trademark itself, usually with a serial or registration number (if a trademark application has been filed or granted), the mark itself, and often with the list of goods and/or services with which the mark is used. This information is often sufficient to clearly identify a trademark. For common-law trademarks – trademarks which are merely used but not filed at the USPTO – the trademark assignment may only be able to identify the mark and its corresponding goods/services. If possible, additional information can be included describing the first use of the mark or geographic areas of use, but one must be careful not to identify that information in a way that unintentionally limits the scope of the trademark’s rights.
The trademark assignment should also identify whether or what other assets, or products, or goodwill is being conveyed with the trademark. The transfer cannot occur in isolation. For example, if Nike were to sell its Air Jordan trademark to Adidas, it could not just give the trademark to Adidas in exchange for a boatload of cash; it would have to also move its inventory of shoes, or plans for designing the shoes, or the Nike division and all the workers responsible for designing Air Jordan shoes.
Improper Trademark Assignment
A trademark assignment can be improper for a number of reasons. For example, someone may attempt to improperly assign an intent-to-use application, may assign the trademark without a written document, or may not actually have the rights to assign it. One problem that can arise is a naked assignment. A naked assignment is a transfer of a trademark without any accompanying goodwill. In the above example, if Adidas just sent money to Nike for the ability to use AIR JORDAN and for nothing else, that would be a naked assignment and presumed invalid.
If a trademark assignment transfers a trademark from a company that no longer exists, that assignment can be invalid. Depending on the state law, some companies have the ability to transfer assets during a limited wind-down period after dissolution of the company, but those laws vary from state to state or may not allow it all. Even the local law forbids a non-existent company from transferring a trademark, the conveyance may be invalid. In some cases, clawback, retroactive, or nunc pro tunc agreements might be a possibility, but those should be carefully researched and approached with great skepticism.
Separate Trademark Assignment Documents
When conveying a pending or registered trademark, it is best to record the trademark assignment with the USPTO. Recording at the USPTO makes the assignment public record. As such, sometimes parties may want to draft a trademark assignment as a stand-alone document. This allows those parties to record the trademark assignment by itself without making all the details of a much larger deal public.
For example, if Nike were acquiring Under Armor, there would be hundreds of pages of agreement details covering purchase price, debt obligations, transition periods, stock purchases, employee handling, etc. The vast majority of these details would be irrelevant to the transfer of the trademark, and neither company would probably want to make those details public (and likely, the agreement would have a confidentiality clause preventing those details from being made public). To still be able to record the trademark assignment, the lawyers would put the assignment in an exhibit. The exhibit would probably be only one or two pages and would not contain any details regarding the bigger detail. The lawyers could then file only that particular exhibit with the USPTO while maintaining the rest of the agreement in confidence.