USA Customs Clearance Logo White

Importing Trademarked Goods: Overcoming IP Import Hurdles

A file folder stamped with the word trademark and the TM symbol. The stamps themselves are also visible.
Importing trademarked goods? Stay ahead with our comprehensive overview of U.S. customs laws and regulations, as well as state, federal, and international copyright law.
Joe Weaver
July 14, 2023
Share This Article
copy-link-to-clipboard Copy URL to Clipboard
Last Modified: July 14, 2023

Importing trademarked goods into the USA is an enticing prospect for businesses of all sizes. However, it also poses challenges that can feel like navigating a labyrinth of legal intricacies. One wrong turn and you could accidentally break the laws that protect intellectual property rights. To import successfully and legally, you must understand the rules and regulations. A little knowledge and foresight can turn this risky proposition into a lucrative enterprise.

According to the International Trade Administration, importing trademarked goods to the USA requires careful adherence to intellectual property laws. Non-compliance can result in severe penalties. Importers must ensure they obtain necessary permissions and adhere strictly to import regulations.

Prepare yourself for the process of importing trademarked products with a little help from the experts at USA Customs Clearance.

Introduction to Importing Trademarked Goods

An overhead view of a loaded semi-truck crossing a bridge, under which is a cargo container ship.

Trademarked goods are products or services protected by a distinctive sign or logo that identifies the goods as coming from a particular source. Importing such goods carries with it both significant opportunities and legal implications. A careful understanding of laws and regulations is vital to navigate the process successfully.

Who Can Import Trademarked Goods?

In general, any business or individual can import trademarked goods, provided they comply with intellectual property laws and customs regulations. Importers play a crucial role in promoting the exchange of trademarked goods, often acting as intermediaries between producers and consumers.

Navigating Trademark Permissions: An Essential Guide

Getting permission to use a trademark is an essential step in the importing process. This involves several intricate steps. These steps can vary from one circumstance to another, but one rule holds true in nearly every situation: you’ll need permission from the holder of the trademark.

How Do You Get Permission to Use a Trademark?

A contract being signed.

Using another company's trademark requires permission from the holder. This permission, when granted, results in a licensing agreement. The agreement ensures both parties benefit from the proposed use of the trademark.

Here are the steps to secure this permission:

  1. Identify the Trademark Owner: Before reaching out for permission, you need to know who owns the trademark. For registered trademarks, you can use the United States Patent and Trademark Office's (USPTO) online database to find this information.
  2. Contact the Trademark Owner: The next step is to contact the trademark owner, usually through their legal department. This is where you express your intent to use their trademark and request a licensing agreement.
  3. Negotiate the Licensing Agreement: If the trademark owner is open to licensing their trademark, it’s time to negotiate. These negotiations include how and where the trademark will be used. Fees and length of use will usually be discussed as well.
  4. Draft and Sign the Agreement: After terms are agreed upon, the licensing agreement is drafted and signed by both parties. It's recommended to involve legal counsel in this process to protect your interests.
  5. Comply With the Agreement: Once the licensing agreement is signed, it's essential to comply with all its terms. Any violation could lead to legal action by the trademark owner.

Securing permission to use a trademark can be a complex process. However, it's crucial for legally importing and selling goods bearing that trademark. Otherwise, you risk having your imported goods seized by Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

If you’re curious about how much money is lost due to unlawful use of trademarks, take a look at the following table.

MSRP Value of Goods Seized for Trademark Infringement


CBP seizes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of illegally trademarked goods a year. 

Registered vs Unregistered Trademarks: Similarities and Differences

A man operating a laptop computer while a woman watches him over his shoulder.

Registered and unregistered trademarks both identify goods or services, but the legal protections and enforcement mechanisms for each can differ greatly. When importing trademarked goods, it's important to understand how these trademarks compare and contrast.

Similarities include:

  • Purpose: Both types of trademarks are used to identify and distinguish goods or services of one seller or provider from those of others.
  • Creation: In both cases, trademark rights in the U.S. are earned through actual use in commerce. This means that rights can be established simply by using the mark in connection with your goods or services.

Differences between the two kinds of trademarks are mostly a matter of legal remedies.

  • Protection Scope: Registered trademarks provide nationwide protection, while unregistered (or common law) trademarks only provide protection within the geographical area where they're used.
  • Enforcement: Registered trademarks can be enforced through the federal court system, while unregistered trademarks are generally enforced through state court. The former often provides a broader and more efficient route for enforcement.
  • USPTO Database: Only registered trademarks appear in the USPTO database. This listing can deter others from using similar marks and aid in the enforcement of trademark rights.
  • Symbol Usage: Owners of registered trademarks have the right to use the ® symbol. In contrast, unregistered trademark owners use TM (for goods) or SM (for services) symbols to stake their claim.

When importing goods, it's important to know if a trademark is registered or unregistered. Do your research to make sure you're respecting intellectual property rights. Whether the trademark is registered or not, unauthorized use can land you in hot water.

Can Customs Seize Imported Unregistered Trademarked Goods?

Yes, CBP has the authority to detain, seize, and forfeit shipments of products suspected of trademark infringement. CBP enforces both registered and unregistered trademark rights at the border, provided the owner of the unregistered trademark can demonstrate their ownership rights under common law.

When dealing with unregistered trademarked goods, a few points to consider include:

  • The trademark owner must be able to prove that they have established significant goodwill and recognition associated with the mark in the U.S. This could be through sales, advertising, or other means.
  • If goods are suspected of infringing on a trademark, the CBP can detain the shipment and notify the trademark owner, offering them an opportunity to establish their rights.
  • The importer of the suspected goods also has a chance to contest the seizure by providing evidence that the imported goods do not infringe upon any valid trademark rights.

Remember that while registration offers more robust protection and simpler enforcement, unregistered trademark rights are also recognized and enforced by CBP. Always be sure that the goods you import are legitimate. Otherwise, you may encounter legal troubles.

Trademark Protection: State Trademark vs Federal

An interior view of a warehouse with a worker walking between two aisles.

Trademark protection in the United States is governed at both the state and federal level. This provides businesses with many options to protect their intellectual property. Knowing the difference between state and federal jurisdiction, and how these laws interact, is essential for businesses importing trademarked goods.

State trademark laws vary, but generally provide protection within the borders of that specific state. A business can file a trademark application with a Secretary of State office. If approved, the trademark holder will be protected by applicable state laws.

On the other hand, federal trademark registration offers protection across all 50 states. If an importer brings in goods bearing a federally registered trademark, they are protected against infringement nationwide. In most cases, federal law overrides state law when it comes to trademarks.

Key points to remember about state vs federal jurisdiction on trademarks include:

  • State trademark laws provide protection within the borders of a specific state.
  • Federal trademark registration offers nationwide protection.
  • In case of a dispute involving a federally registered trademark, federal law usually preempts state law.
  • Understanding the level of trademark protection is essential for importers to reduce risks and navigate potential legal issues.

Beyond U.S. state and federal laws lies the slightly more complicated world of international trademarks, which are largely governed by the Madrid Protocol.

Effects of the Madrid Protocol on Importing Trademarked Goods

The Madrid Protocol is an international agreement that makes it easier to register trademarks in multiple countries. The USA is part of this protocol, as are many of its trade partners. Administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), this agreement has substantial effects on the importing of trademarked goods.

Two main benefits of the Madrid Protocol are:

  • It simplifies and centralizes the process of registering trademarks in multiple countries.
  • It allows for efficient management and renewal of trademark registrations.

Consider the following example. An importer named Jane brings designer clothing from a European brand into the U.S. If the brand's trademark is registered under the Madrid Protocol, she doesn't have to navigate the individual trademark registration processes in the U.S. and Europe. 

This not only simplifies her task, but also ensures that the brand's trademark is protected in both jurisdictions. Hence, the protocol minimizes possible legal complications for the importer. 

The Ins and Outs of Parallel Import Trademark Infringement

Parallel imports, also known as gray market goods, are genuine goods that are imported without the permission of the trademark owner. They can sometimes lead to trademark infringement cases, posing significant legal risks.

Suppose there's a tech company, GadgetCo, which manufactures high-quality headphones. GadgetCo is based in the U.S. and has authorized distributors in several countries worldwide, including the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., GadgetCo headphones are sold for $200, while in Canada, they are sold for CAD 150 (equivalent to $120 USD).

An enterprising businessman, John, sees an opportunity and performs the following series of actions.

  • John starts buying GadgetCo headphones in bulk from Canada 
  • He imports them into the U.S., even though he doesn't have explicit permission from the company to do so. 
  • He then sells these headphones in the U.S. for $150 - a price that's cheaper than the official U.S. price, but still allows him to make a profit.

This is an example of parallel importing - John is importing genuine, legally-purchased GadgetCo headphones, but he's doing so without the manufacturer’s consent. John’s methods bypass GadgetCo's authorized distribution channels. This can result in market disruptions and potential legal complexities, depending on the intellectual property laws of the countries involved. While not as overt as outright copyright infringement, it can still cause legal troubles for the importer of record.

Don't Risk Fines and Seizures of Your Imported Goods.
Request My Quote Now >

Understanding the Lanham Act and Its Impact on Imports

The Lanham Act, also known as the Trademark Act of 1946, forms the basis for current federal trademark law in the U.S. It allows businesses to register their trademarks, providing legal protection against infringement on a national scale. When it comes to importing, the Lanham Act has significant implications.

The act is what gives CBP the aforementioned authority to seize goods suspected of IP infringement. This protection has been critical for businesses to safeguard their brand image and maintain customer trust.

To claim copyright infringement under the act, a plaintiff must prove two basic facts about the accused party.

  • The plaintiff possesses a valid trademark.
  • The defendant is unlawfully using the trademark in a way that can create confusion.


Consider a hypothetical company, Brand X, that has registered its logo under the Lanham Act. An importer trying to bring in goods with counterfeit Brand X logos can have their goods seized by CBP, protecting Brand X from market dilution.

The main points to remember about the Lanham Act and its impact on imports are:

  • It allows for federal registration of trademarks.
  • The act offers protection against trademark infringement.
  • Lastly, it enables CBP to seize infringing or counterfeit goods.

Another act that still has an impact on importing products was passed in 1930: The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act: History and Implications for Today's Importers

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 is a piece of historical legislation that still affects importers today. Within its subsections, the unlawfulness of importing any merchandise of foreign manufacture that bears an unlicensed trademark to the United States is codified. 

The act protects trademark holders in the U.S. from violators who might seek to import goods with unauthorized marks. Yes, this piece of legislation is why you can’t buy fake Luis Vuitton purses.

The Importance of Customs Bonds in Importing Trademarked Goods

Customs bonds are a vital part of importing trademarked goods. These are insurance policies guaranteeing that importers will comply with U.S. laws and regulations. The bond ensures that goods pass quickly through U.S. customs.

USA Customs Clearance can assist you in securing these essential bonds, making the importing process smooth and efficient.

A Customs Bond for Sea & Air

Importing Starts With a Contract.

You Must Pay Import Duties & Taxes for your Goods.

Get Your Customs Bond >

Cut the Red Tape With USA Customs Clearance

In the already complex world of importing, trademarked goods can be especially frustrating to get right without expert help. USA Customs Clearance has the know-how you need to avoid the pitfalls of copyright infringement while importing.

Take advantage of our years of experience in:

  • Customs brokerage
  • Import consulting
  • Customs bonds
  • Importer of record registration

Give us a call at (855) 912-0406 or book your personalized consulting session to avoid unnecessary fines or seizures and get the help you need importing trademarked goods today! 

Share This Article
copy-link-to-clipboard Copy URL to Clipboard

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

USA Customs Clearance
315 NE 14th St #4122
Ocala, FL 34470
(855) 912-0406
Copyright © 2023 AFC International LLC.  All Rights Reserved.