A trade name is the name which a company uses to engage in business affairs. A trade name is used to distinguish a company from other companies and also has a marketing purpose. The right to use a trade name is accorded to whoever has the first visible, public and continuous use of said name. Therefore, a registration procedure is not required in order to acquire the right to use a certain trade name, although to prove it could be useful to register a trade name with the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises in order to prove that you used it first.
A trade name allows the holder to prohibit third parties from using an identical or similar name which could cause confusion with the trade name. However, this practice only applies within the limits of the trade name's influence, i.e. within the region and sphere of activities where this trade name is known and used. Depending on circumstances, this could be a village, city, region, country, etc.
The scope of protection of a trade name is thus entirely determined by the way in which this name is used. The more a trade name is well-known, the larger is its protection. Conversely, the right to use a trade name expires once it is no longer used.
A trade name must not be confused with a trademark. While a trade name distinguishes one company from another, the goal of a trademark is to distinguish the products or services of one company from those of another company. In addition, a trademark offers an exclusive right to prohibit throughout the entire area where it is registered, which is not the case for trade names.
Of course, when choosing and using a trade name you must take into account all trademarks held by third parties. Similarly, the existence of a trade name may, under certain conditions, prevent you from registering a trademark under the same name.
Finally, some companies may use their trade name as a trademark for their products or services (for example Philips, Hilton, Fortis). For each specific situation, we must determine exactly how the name is used. However, many companies do not use this strategy of using a single name to represent both their company and their products but rather adopt a specific trademark for their products or services (for example, the Sara Lee company which holds trademarks for Douwe Egberts, Biotex and Sanex).
A company’s legal name is the official name of the legal person (limited liability company or private limited company, for example) which is used in the articles of association and is published in the Official Belgian Gazette. Thus, the legal name is simply used to identify the legal person and, unlike the trade name, it serves no marketing purpose. The first person to use a legal name has the exclusive right to use this name throughout Belgium. If another company chooses a legal name which is identical or which is so similar as to cause confusion, it may be required to change the name and pay damages to the holder of the prior legal name.
It is perfectly possible to use the same sign as a legal name and a trade name.