Top Things to Know about Trademarks

If you are starting your own business or are a graphic designer, there are some intense trademarks in branding you should know. Everyone knows about the Beatles’ Apple Corps vs. Apple Inc, and it's quite clear who won. However, you probably didn't know the word ‘superhero’ is trademarked by both Marvel and DC. The legalese involved basically says as long as the word is not used in commercial products, you can use it. This goes for many brands who trademark everything from colors to jingles, but here are the top things to know about trademarks.


Color Commentary

There is an Owlturd comic that states the amusing reality that is companies 'owning' colors. In 1985, Owens Corning won the right to prevent competitors from using the color pink in their insulation. They were the first to legally own the rights to a color. Granted, the color must be used in a way that competes with theirs and could confuse consumers, but it definitely started a trend. Mattel sued MCA records for use of his exclusive "Barbie Pink" for their single "Barbie Girl" and album artwork say Business Insider. The judge dismissed the case, famously saying "The parties are advised to chill".

But what does a company have to do to trademark a color? Color Matters describes it best in three brief categories: Psychological Effects (symbolism), Aesthetic Effects (attractive design), and Visual Effects (eye catching). Although there are certainly conflicting interpretations, sometimes you win (Cadbury vs. Nestle over the color purple) and sometimes you lose (BP vs. Woolworths over their green and yellow theme).


Look-alike Logos

As many companies may know, it is difficult starting out. Especially with the influence of some companies like Starbucks on coffee or Apple on electronics, some startups believe they have to match them to succeed. This leads to lawsuits. Quite recently, PayPal filed a lawsuit against Pandora Radio for their app icon redesign. PayPal claims that the similar logo conflicts with the brand's "ease of use and distinct branding". This claim isn't unfounded either, as there are multiple people who turned to Twitter to complain. In 1994, Adidas and Payless got into a power struggle over the three stripe logo. Adidas claimed to have the stripes since 1952 and acquired a trademark recently. The trial lasted seven years with Adidas surfacing as the winner, says Smithsonian.com.

The ability to trademark a logo is just as tricky as colors. A company has to use the logo for a certain period of time and practically become a household name. Apple has no grounds to sue anyone using an apple, but can if they are in electronics. Even so, they did try... and lost, according to The Guardian. A cafe in Germany called, Apfelkind, was targeted by Apple for having an apple logo. For two years Apple insisted Christin Römer remove it trademark application, but Römer never backed down. Unlike the Beatles, she won against the tech giant. Despite the loss, Apple is still handing out lawsuits like fliers to anyone using their favorite fruit.


What's in a Name?

Similarly to colors and logos, company names can be trademarked. Lawsuits can range from 'its sounds like' or 'it has this is the name'. For example, Under Armour is very adamant about being the only 'armor' in sports wear. The Washington Post recalls from 2015 when Under Armour sued a family-run business called "Armor & Glory" in reference to biblical "Armor of God". The lawsuit is still ongoing. Competitive big brands seem to always be engaged in lawsuits to keep smaller businesses from diluting their own brand. Facebook was able to actually trademark the use of "face" but only in the use of telecommunication services. The trademark was filed after FaceTime, so Apple is safe.

Unlike colors and logos for trademarking, there is a rather huge loophole for brand names. It's affectionately known as the Satire/Parody Distinction. Due to this alternative way around lawsuits, artists like Wired Al can parody popular music and comedians can start up Dumb Starbucks. Yes, it was a real coffee chain, but closed due to bad results from a health inspection. The store was incredibly popular due to its satirical nature, however Starbucks never needed to sue them. As it turns out the owner, Elias Zacklin, ashamed of almost creating a chain, decided to instead focus on local businesses and shut down. His statement about how local businesses could easily thrive under a chain's logo was proven, but not taken to heart.


What to Avoid

Everything from color, brand name, and logo design has been covered, but what happens when you make it big? Of course, you attempt to keep your brand from being diluted by other start ups 'borrowing' your look or name, but there is a bigger problem too. A problem of becoming too well known. It is called Genericide. This is when your brand becomes a household name to the point where it is used generically. For example, Kleenex or aspirin. Think of it like a book deemed a classic. Those books and themes therein are now public domain. Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice are just a few that can be legally rewritten, modernized, and filmed ad nauseam.

What can you do to prevent it? Nintendo is desperately trying to keep the words "gaming console" on the lips of users to keep their brand from becoming public domain. Google is wary of becoming a verb "to Google". The use of the verb started in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2002, says The Atlantic. Once the word was voted to be added to the dictionary as a verb, Google was apprehensive about it becoming a loose term for any search engine. So far, so good for Google.

Just keep your wits about you and have a very good lawyer.