What Are Trademark Colors?

Trademark colors are the specific shades and hues registered to a particular brand.

Why Trademark Colors Matter

Colors can make people think or feel a certain way about a product. A color can be associated with products in a literal or an abstract way to produce certain psychological effects. Blue, for example, can be used for frozen, cool products, while green is often used for healthy or organic choices. Certain colors can be considered to work together or be particularly aesthetically pleasing. Green and yellow are closely related, so they appear to be harmonious. Vibrant and eye-catching colors can produce certain visual effects. Some colors grab the audience's attention right away. Some can make text easier to read.

Particular colors are used to make certain products appear distinct from their competitors. These products can be anything from commercial products to industrial equipment. Sometimes these colors are used to identify packaging; for example Kodak packages its film in a black and yellow box, whereas Fuji packages its film in green. Products can have identifiable packaging designs as well. Blue, orange, and yellow packaging is popular for laundry detergents, for example. While the same colors might be used, the packaging and label could be very different. Sometimes consumers get confused by similar colors, label designs, and packaging shapes. If the packaging is too similar, a customer might get confused and purchase the wrong one by mistake.

Can You Claim a Trademark Color?

In short, yes, you can trademark a color. However, there are very specific circumstances under which a color can be registered. Court cases have indicated that color may not be protected as a trademark if it is "functional" – either utilitarian or aesthetic. If a color is essential to the product's use, quality or cost, then it is functional under the utilitarian designation. A color is atheistically functional if its exclusive use puts a competitor at a significant disadvantage. Some factors used to determine a color's functionality are:

  • Whether the design (or color) yields utilitarian advantage;
  • Whether alternative designs (or colors) are available;
  • Whether advertising touts utilitarian advantages of the design (or color); and
  • Whether the particular design (or color) results from a comparatively simple or inexpensive method of manufacture.

A color can "sometimes" be protected by a trademark, however it's important to note The U.S. Supreme Court's statement that, "when that color has attained 'secondary meaning' and therefore identifies and distinguishes a particular brand (and thus indicates its 'source').

Can You Claim the Name of a Color as a Trademark?

Sometimes. "Brown" is a registered trademark of UPS. However, some applications run into trouble. In 2006, Syracuse University filed for a trademark of the word "orange" for use on apparel related to its athletics department. The university's athletic teams are known as "Orange." The University of Tennessee, Boise State University, The University of the Pacific, Oklahoma State University, Clemson University, the University of Florida and Auburn University have all filed a formal opposition to the trademark application. However, the colleges are reportedly working toward a solution in the matter.

What Kinds of Trademark Colors Are There?

Some popular examples of trademark colors include:

1. Green-gold, Qualitex

2. Tiffany Blue

3. Target Red

4. Cadbury Purple

5. Barbie Pink

6. Home Depot Orange

7. T-Mobile Magenta

8. Wiffle-Ball Yellow

9. UPS Brown

10. Coca-Cola Red

11. Christian Louboutin Red Soles

12. Pepto-Bismol Pink

How can two companies have the same trademark color?

While you can trademark a color, you cannot own it outright. The likelihood of confusion between two different products in varying markets is low. While "Barbie" has its trademark pink in more than 100 categories, the likelihood of the brand being confused for similarly pink "Pepto-Bismol" is highly unlikely. The same goes for "Target" and "Coca-Cola". While "Target" may sell "Coca-Cola" products, it is highly unlikely that the two brands would be confused as being the same.

In 2011, Christian Louboutin sued Yves St. Laurent over St. Laurent's monochromatic red shoes. Louboutin trademarked the iconic red sole of its shoes in 2008. An appeals court ruled that Louboutin's red soles were a trademark only if they were paired with shoes of a different color.

Red as a functional color has spilled over into the soup world, too. Campbell's soup tried to file an injunction against Armour Star for its use of red-and-white labeling but was denied by U.S. courts.

U.S. law declined to distinguish a single color as a brand up until the 1980's. We were able to register color combinations, however, for a long time. When Owens-Corning, a fiberglass building insulation company, created its "Think Pink" campaign, this all changed. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled in a 1985 case that Owens-Coming had the right to stop others from using the same pink for insulation products. In another later case, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that a single color can identify a brand. As long as the general public can associate that particular color with a specific product, the color can no longer be used by similar products or brands. This 'Think Pink" case is a good example of a color being protected by a trademark. While the color pink isn't important to the insulation industry, it became an identifying mark of the Owens-Corning brand.

If you need help or have questions about registering a trademark color, you can post your question or concern on UpCounsel's marketplace.