How to Trademark a Color

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How many of you can close your eyes and picture the exact shade of green that Starbucks uses on its mugs? Or the exact color that adorns the box of a Barbie doll? These colors are a crucial part of some major brands nowadays — so it's not surprising that companies have started to trademark them, to prevent competitors from using them.

Find out how certain very specific colors have become corporate property.

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T-Mobile owns a particular vibration of photons that we call magenta. Barbie doll packages, and only Barbie doll packages, can be adorned with a particular shade of cloying pink. We understand that trademarks apply to arrangements of colors in a certain shape that denotes a corporate logo — but trademark is more all-encompassing than that. We all can create certain photons, but some of us can be blocked from doing it by a court order.


In America, the first definitive judgment on colors came from the Supreme Court in 1995. The case was surprisingly obscure. None of the giants of industry went to war over their color scheme. It was simply a Chicago manufacturing company, Qualitex, that complained that its competition could not manufacture covers that protected pads for dry-cleaning presses in the same shades of green and gold. They argued that the colors themselves were part of the way customers identified their products, and so should be trademarked along with their exact designs and logos. After some time, the Supreme Court agreed. The decision cited the fact that the exact shape of a Coke bottle could belong only to the company (and how many people can picture that exact shape right now) and a certain scent, applied to a type of sewing thread, could also be proprietary. Anything that got a consumer's hand jerking towards a specific company's product without thinking could be proprietary.

Overall, companies try to cluster around strong shades of blue and red, making those areas of the palette crowded with prohibitions. The colors aren't totally banned, of course. They only apply to someone in direct competition with the company; someone who is trying to make money in the same area as, say, Starbucks. So while a clothing manufacturer or an electronics firm might be able to work with Starbucks green, another coffee shop or restaurant wouldn't.


It's not that this doesn't entirely make sense. How many of us have zeroed in on the right product by looking for the right color in a crowded aisle? Still, colors aren't the same as manufacturing designs or eye-catching groups of lines, and not everything that helps identify a product necessarily belongs to the makers of that product. Nature doesn't produce the Nabisco logo. It does produce a color green, or blue, or red. It's unsettling to realize that particular wavelengths of light can be claimed by some and denied to others. Even physics has a corporate side.

Via Baltimore Sun, Six Revisions, and Colour Lovers.