Can You Trademark Based on Color?
Are you wondering if a particular use of color can be the subject of a Federal Trademark Registration?
- The short answer: Yes, color can be a Trademark — when certain evidentiary facts are present.
- The longer answer follows…
What is a Trademark?
A “Trademark,” according to 15 U.S.C. § 1027, is “any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof — (1) used by a person, or (2) which a person has a bona fide intention to use in commerce and applies to register on the principal register established by this chapter, to identify and distinguish his or her goods, including a unique product, from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods, even if that source is unknown.”
Exclusions to obtaining a federal Trademark registration are covered in https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/15/1052.
The Doctrine of Trademark Functionality
In Kellogg Co. v. National Biscuit Co., 305 U.S. 111 (1938), the Supreme Court held that the “pillow” shape of a shredded wheat biscuit was functional and not the subject of a Trademark Registration.
In the US Supreme Court case of Inwood Laboratories, Inc. v. Ives Laboratories, Inc., 456 U.S. 844 (1982) the Supreme Court held that the colors of the brand name pharmaceutical capsules were functional and not the subject of a Trademark Registration.
In short, if the aspect is functional, it cannot be the subject of a federal Trademark Registration. However, in a footnote to Inwood Laboratories, Inc. case, on page 850, the Court wrote:
“Although sometimes color plays an important role (unrelated to source identification) in making a product more desirable, sometimes it does not. And, this latter fact—the fact that sometimes color is not essential to a product’s use or purpose and does not affect cost or quality—indicates that the doctrine of “functionality” does not create an absolute bar to the use of color alone as a mark.”
The Case of Colored Dry Cleaning Pads
Can green-gold color pads for dry cleaning presses be the subject of a federal trademark registration? Yep!
The US Trademark Office granted US Registration No. 1,633,711 for a “particular shade of green-gold applied to the top and side surfaces of the goods [pads]” to the Qualitex Company. Another company, Jacobson, later began to sell its own green-gold pads. Among other causes of action, Qualitex sued Jacobson for Trademark infringement. Eventually, the case made its way to the US Supreme Court.
On page 166 of Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., Inc., 514 U.S. 159, Mr. Justice Breyer wrote:
“It would seem, then, that color alone, at least sometimes, can meet the basic legal requirements for use as a trademark. It can act as a symbol that distinguishes a firm’s goods and identifies their source, without serving any other significant function…the District Court, in this case, entered findings (accepted by the Ninth Circuit) that show Qualitex’s green-gold press pad color has met these requirements. The green-gold color acts as a symbol. Having developed secondary meaning (for customers identified the green-gold color as Qualitex’s), it identifies the press pads’ source. And, the green-gold color serves no other function. (Although it is important to use some color on press pads to avoid noticeable stains, the court found “no competitive need in the press pad industry for the green-gold color, since other colors are equally usable.”)…Accordingly, unless there is some special reason that convincingly militates against the use of color alone as a trademark, trademark law would protect Qualitex’s use of the green-gold color on its press pads.”
Conclusion on Color
To answer the initial question, according to the Supreme Court of the United States:
- A green-gold color for a dry cleaner’s press pad is the subject of a federal Trademark Registration.
- The blue and white or the blue and red colors of pharmaceutical capsules are not the subject of a federal Trademark Registration.
Trademark issues are complex, if you need legal assistance preparing or managing your Trademark/Service Mark or Patent Applications, please contact Business Patent Law, PLLC.
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