Trademarking a color has become more common — UPS and brown, Target and red, John Deere and green and yellow.
However, Sandra M. Koenig, a partner at Fay Sharpe LLP, says it’s important to remember that trademarking a color isn’t limited to big companies, especially if you have a specific audience and can show the color is distinctive in a smaller segment of the industry.
Smart Business spoke with Koenig about trademarking colors and the law surrounding it.
What can be a trademark other than a word or logo?
Some nontraditional trademarks can be an overall appearance or trade dress, such as color, product shape, scent and sound. When trademarking color, it can be a combination of colors applied to products, packaging or something that represents a service, as well as just one color, called color per se. Consumers should be able to easily associate color with a product or service, or its source. You might be asked to prove the connection, perhaps with surveys.
What does it take to make a color a trademark?
There are certain criteria to get a color registered. It cannot be a color required in an area or acting as an industry standard, such as green’s association with the environment (for an environmental product). The color needs to be used consistently, but your use shouldn’t limit competitors. If it’s the cheapest color to use when manufacturing a product, you can’t keep it for yourself. The color should be unexpected and not related to its function.
Some companies get color or product configuration trademarks as a way to extend protection to something no longer covered by a patent, or never covered. Trademarks last forever, as long as you keep using and renewing them, while patents are good for 20 years from the day of filing and design patents last 14 years. Therefore, when a patent runs out, trademarking the color or shape is a way to keep a unique look under protection.
The registration process can take years, especially if it’s a single color or there are appeals. Last year, in one noteworthy case, Louboutin v. Yves Saint Laurent, a federal appeals court limited Christian Louboutin’s color trademark to shoes with a lacquered red sole and contrasting upper. However, once you have a registration for your color, you’ve got national prima facie exclusive rights.
Is it easy to prove you have a trademark in a color?
It depends on your field and with what the color is associated. Areas where products are supposed to have color, such as fashion or paint, are difficult. It’s also sometimes harder to trademark a product going to general consumers. A logo with a color like the yellow Shell gas station logo is fairly straightforward, a combination of colors absent shape or configuration is more difficult, and one color without limitation to shape or configuration is hardest to prove.
Another consideration is whether you’re registering a particular shade by the pantone number, a range of pantone numbers or a color without limitation to shade. Like with traditional trademark infringement, it comes down to the likelihood of confusion. If you registered the color orange per se and somebody has peach, is that confusingly similar? If you did a pantone range of a yellow, how far outside of that range is confusing?
If you want to protect the color of your product, how can you establish rights in order to register it?
Be proactive and consistent. Don’t dilute the color by offering the same product in an array of colors. If you want to be the supplier of a magenta-colored product, don’t sell the same product in purple, green, yellow and gray.
Promote it in advertising, including saying the color word. Use ‘look for’ advertising, like ‘look for the color red on your grocer’s shelves’ or ‘we’re the green people.’ It helps if your company colors are the same as the product you’re trying to protect. You also can tie the color with something relevant like Owens Corning did with the Pink Panther and its pink insulation. Anything to drive home the association with the color and you and your product.
Sandra M. Koenig is a partner at Fay Sharpe LLP. Reach her at (216) 363-9000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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