Owning a Color?

In today’s hyper-visual world, it seems like there are images and colors all around you. From flashy billboards to television ads and website banners, it seems like marketing is at an all-time high. The information consumers gain from all these promotions has a lot to do with the colors that capture their attention. In fact, according to Color Matters®, market research indicates that “over 80% of visual information is related to color”.

With many companies, the color of their brand has become synonymous with their corporate identity. Who doesn’t look at a pale blue and think of Tiffany or see a brown hue and think of UPS? While unofficially, many companies are associated with a specific color, and the legal debate as to who can actually own a color has become a popular strife with corporations over the last couple of decades.

Every country or union has different rules and regulations based on corporations in their country. In the United States, the Supreme Court ruling of 1995, Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Products Co., Inc. set the national standard that color can be used as a trademark, provided that the color has developed “secondary meaning” in consumer minds with evidence that this color is prevalent and most often associated with the brand already, and any other use of the color in the same industry would lead to consumer confusion. If both Coca-Cola and Pepsi both had the true red color wouldn’t you be confused as a consumer whenever you see their ads?

T-Mobile, for example, has the exclusive rights to the color No. 395 52 630 “magenta” — but only in the telecommunications sector. Therefore, the law can be interpreted in a way that allows non-communications companies who would like to use the same magenta the right to do so (as long as no other company in their industry has already trademarked it). However, not all companies have been as successful in copyrighting their color. In Australia, for example, BP has lost numerous battles fighting to protect their synonymous green identity despite their registered rights in over 20 other countries.

The ethical question of whether a company has the rights to own a color has two sides. Those who own the business say the color of their brand has a large impact on what consumers recognize, and creative designers often oppose the idea of ‘owning’ a color since the legal uncopyrighted color palette selection is a limited resource that would be shrinking with each new copyrighted color — thus killing creativity in the future.

So, what do you think? Should companies be allowed to claim colors?

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