Can you trademark a color?

 

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Yes, US trademark protection can be obtained for a color or color combination, though it is not commonplace.

United Parcel Service, for example, owns brown as a color mark in the transportation and delivery industry (reg. no. 2901090). This doesn’t mean that no other company can use the same brown. But it does mean that no other company in the field of transportation and delivery can use brown—for delivery trucks or other trade dress.

The purpose of trademark protection is to prevent confusion among consumers. When a brown delivery truck pulls up and a driver in a brown uniform gets out, most people assume it’s UPS, not Fedex or another delivery service. The brown color has become so associated in the minds of customers with UPS that it has become a distinguishing mark for the company, though it has not always been so. That’s why early efforts by UPS to register brown as a trademark were not successful. It took time, and aggressive marketing, for brown to acquire meaning for UPS. In trademark law, when a mark acquires meaning that it did not have in the first place, it is said to acquire “secondary meaning.” This acquired secondary meaning has allowed UPS to apply for and receive trademark registration for brown.

Similarly, Owens Corning has been granted several trademark registrations for the color pink for insulation, adhesive tape and other construction-related products (reg. nos. 1439132, 2090588, 2380445, 2380742, 3165001). 3M has a trademark for canary yellow for PostIt notes, and in the telecommunications industry, T Mobile has a trademark for magenta.

To qualify for trademark protection, a color cannot be “functional.” That is, the color cannot be essential to the use or purpose of the product or service. This is why Deere and Company was denied a trademark registration for green in the early 1980s. There are many makers of farm and garden equipment. Should only one of them be allowed to paint their tractors green? It seems reasonable that green, the color most commonly associated with plants, gardens and farms should not be owned exclusively by one farm equipment company. It would seem to be an unfair advantage in the marketplace. On the other hand, specific combinations of green and yellow for specific applications have been registered by Deere. A green tractor body with yellow wheels, for example. Or a green harvester with a yellow stripe. multiple2

 

Links:

Blog article by Susan Perera   The struggle of Deere and Co. to trademark color.

Chinese court awards trademark victory to John Deere  This decision marks the first instance in China of a trademark litigation based on colors. The infringer was a heavy equipment company based in Beijing. Deere was given injunctive relief and awarded 450,000 yuan in damages.

 

A paper by Belinda J. Scrimenti for the American Bar Association Section of Intellectual Property Law’s 27th Annual Intellectual Property Law Conference in Arlington, Virginia. The pdf found on this page contains a short, but fascinating, history of trademark litigation regarding colors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A trademark registration is not always about protecting a logo design.

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Often, in the  US, a trademark registration is for the wording only rather than the design of a logo. The terminology used for this type of mark on a US Trademark application is “standard character mark.”

A registration for the design of a logo would be a separate application. What is the difference between the  two types of registration? Which is better?

Standard Character Mark

A registration for a standard character mark covers all variations of the wording that you want to protect. It covers the wording in any letter style and any color or size. That means it covers the wording if it’s part of a logo design, too. In other words, a standard character registration is more comprehensive than a registration that is for only the design of a logo, because it covers all forms of the wording (including its use as a domain name).

A design mark

On the other hand, a trademark registration for the design of a logo applies only to the exact design as it appears in the drawing that you send with the application. So, what happens if you want to change the design later, or add or remove a word? You will have a problem, because you will be required to apply for a new trademark registration. In effect, then, a registration for a standard character mark may be stronger, more versatile, than a registration for a design mark.

Why not register the wording of a logo as a trademark and its design as a copyright? Because, so often, a logo does not qualify for copyright protection in the US.  [see related post:  Can logos receive copyright protection?]

Consequently, many trademarks are protected by two trademark registrations, one for the wording and one for the design. You may even see two registrations just for the design (one in color and one in black and white). If you want to apply for only one trademark registration to save money, an attorney may advise registering a standard character mark rather than a design mark. There are more infringements related to words than to designs. Sometimes, though, a particular word mark may be considered “weak,” so that protecting the design may take on greater importance. Again, the advice of a trademark attorney can be valuable.

The ideal, of course, is to protect both wording and design by separate registrations, though it’s more costly.

 

Links:

USPAT page explaining character mark versus designed mark   This link is to a government page and has some illustrations.

Law 4 Small Business   This post is by attorney David Ferrance from 2015. Clear and succinct explanation of character mark versus design mark.

Words or Logo or Both?   A more involved explanation from the blog of attorney Eric Waltmire.