A man holds a blank business card. Stock photo by Getty Images
What’s in a name? A fair amount of legal detail, as it turns out. You likely want your business to have a creative, interesting name that really stands out and conveys what you do. But it’s also got to be legal. Here’s what you need to know.
Can I use my own name?
Yes, but not on its own. For example, “Mary Smith, Inc.” is too generic a name, but “Mary Smith Photography” is fine.
Do I have to register the name?
Name registration is generally mandatory. The one exception is a sole proprietorship operating just under the owner’s name. Anyone operating a sole proprietorship under a name besides their own has to register it.
Naming laws, however, vary according to province. In Ontario, you can be fined up to $2,000 for failing to register the name of your sole proprietorship.
How do I register my name?
This is done through the province or territory where you’re operating.
Most businesses, including all corporations, must also pay to perform a search on a computerized database called NUANS, which compares your name to existing company names and trademarks and ensures your name isn’t too similar to one already in use.
Is my name protected by copyright or trademark?
Once your name is on the books, other companies are legally prohibited from using it or anything too similar, and you can sue a business that tries to hijack your name. However, registering your business name is not the same as trademarking or copyrighting it.
When do I use Co., Ltd., Inc., or other suffixes?
Naming add-ons like Inc. or Ltd. aren’t just to make your company name look cool or sophisticated. They have a legal significance that informs others about the structure of your business.
Depending on your type of business, you might be required to use Limited, Incorporated, Corporation, Co-operative or other suffixes as part of your legal name.
That doesn’t mean you have to use it on signs, ads or business cards, but it’s needed when registering your company name or on other official documents such as tax forms.
What are unacceptable terms?
There are three types of terms you can’t use in your business name.
Implied connections: you can’t pretend to be affiliated with the government, a bank or some other business or institution.
Using “Canada” in a name can be touchy since it might imply a government connection. Your accounting business called Canada Taxes could be misinterpreted as being connected with the Canada Revenue Agency. Likewise, you’re strictly banned from using RCMP, Parliament Hill or United Nations in your name, either abbreviated or spelled out.
Misrepresentation: your business name can’t mislead customers about your service. You can’t run a “Dollar Store” that sells everything for $5, or run “Fantastic Foods” that just sells rat poison.
Obscenity: obscene or salacious terms or implications won’t fly. You’ve got to keep the business name fairly clean, regardless of what your product is.
The Corporations Act and Business Corporations Act offer more detail. Basically, a prohibited name:
- lacks distinctiveness;
- is likely to cause confusion with other businesses;
- is likely to mislead the public;
- is reserved for another business;
- is obscene;
- has an unacceptable French or English form.