Protecting band names -- Artists such as R.E.M., ZZ Top, and the Indigo Girls trademark their names by registering with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Look closely at the cover of ZZ Top’s new Greatest Hits album, especially at the chromelike Top logo. See that small, circled R floating next to the band’s name that looks suspiciously like a registered trademark symbol? Sure enough — that’s ZZ Top® to you, mister. And what’s that demarcation on the cover of Rites of Passage, the new album by Indigo Girls — or, rather, Indigo Girls®?

Registering a band’s name as a trademark may seem ludicrous, but according to Stuart Silfen, one of ZZ Top’s attorneys, it’s ”a way to prevent against infringement. If you have something identifiable, you need to protect it as you would any other asset. It’s no different from General Motors or Ford.” ZZ Top and Indigo Girls aren’t alone in making like GM. Among the hundreds of bands and musicians who have registered their names with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office of the Department of Commerce are Chicago, R.E.M., U2, and that renowned Long Island corporation, Billy Joel.

According to the complex trademark laws, performers are not legally obligated to trademark their names; even if R.E.M. hadn’t done so, the fact that the band has been using that name for more than a decade makes it impossible for another R.E.M. to exist. Yet according to the U.S. Trademark Association, most big-league rockers (like ZZ Top, which trademarked its name and logo in 1986) register anyway, primarily to counter bootleg merchandise. The process is fairly painless and can cost as little as $200 — barely the price of an hour in the studio.

Sometimes an artist has a compelling reason to apply for a trademark. Shortly after Indigo Girls signed with Sony’s Epic label in 1989, an Illinois band called the Indigos contested the name. Since Amy Ray and Emily Saliers hadn’t yet registered the name Indigo Girls, they had to prove they had used it first. Because they had been performing as a duo since 1985, they were allowed to keep, and trademark, the moniker. ”Any band that comes up with a name and performs publicly should trademark their name as soon as they have the money to do it,” advises Russell Carter, Indigo Girls’ manager, who says the group’s court battle was ”time-consuming — and it cost us a lot of money. But if anyone tries to use the name in any way, we can send a cease-and-desist letter. So it was money well spent.”

Since trademark owners are not obligated to display the jarring ® symbol if they don’t want to, why did Indigo Girls? Carter attributes its appearance in the album art to ”some zealous lawyer in Sony Music Business Affairs,” but adds, ”It’s not a bad idea. We have a trademark, so we might as well put people on notice.” Up-and-comers searching for names for their acts may have a few options left, though: Metallica and Garth Brooks haven’t registered their names — yet.