TMEP 1202.05(a): Color Marks Never Inherently Distinctive

This is the October 2015 Edition of the TMEP

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1202.05(a)    Color Marks Never Inherently Distinctive

Color marks are never inherently distinctive. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Bros., 529 U.S. 205, 211-12, 54 USPQ2d 1065, 1068 (2000) (citing Qualitex Co. v. Jacobson Prods. Co., 514 U.S. 159, 162-63, 34 USPQ2d 1161, 1162-63 (1995)); In re Thrifty, Inc., 274 F.3d 1349, 1353, 61 USPQ2d 1121, 1124 (Fed. Cir. 2001). Therefore, the examining attorney must refuse to register a color mark on the Principal Register, unless the applicant establishes that the proposed mark has acquired distinctiveness under §2(f). The examining attorney must issue this refusal in all color mark applications where acquired distinctiveness has not been shown, regardless of the filing basis of the application. The ground for refusal is that the color is not inherently distinctive and, thus, does not function as a trademark under §§1, 2, and 45 of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§1051, 1052, and 1127, or does not function as a service mark under §§1, 2, 3, and 45, 15 U.S.C. §§1051, 1052, 1053, and 1127.

If the proposed color mark is not functional, it may be registrable on the Principal Register if it is shown to have acquired distinctiveness under §2(f). If it is not distinctive, it is registrable only on the Supplemental Register. See In re Hudson News Co., 39 USPQ2d 1915, 1923 (TTAB 1996), aff’d per curiam, 114 F.3d 1207 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“blue motif” applied to retail store services not registrable on Principal Register without resort to Section 2(f)); Edward Weck Inc. v. IM Inc., 17 USPQ2d 1142, 1145 (TTAB 1990) (the color green, as uniformly applied to medical instruments, not barred from registration on the basis of functionality; however, evidence failed to establish the color had become distinctive of the goods); In re Deere & Co., 7 USPQ2d 1401, 1403-04 (TTAB 1988) (the colors green and yellow, as applied to the body and wheels of machines, respectively, not barred from registration on the basis of functionality; evidence established the colors had become distinctive of the goods).

The burden of proving that a color mark has acquired distinctiveness is substantial. See In re Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 774 F.2d 1116, 227 USPQ 417 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (the color pink, as uniformly applied to fibrous glass residential insulation, shown to have acquired distinctiveness ); In re Lorillard Licensing Co., 99 USPQ2d 1312 (TTAB 2011) (finding the evidence insufficient to demonstrate that the applied-for mark, "namely, any orange text appearing on a green background," had achieved acquired distinctiveness); In re Benetton Grp. S.p.A., 48 USPQ2d 1214 (TTAB 1998) (evidence insufficient to establish that green rectangular background design had acquired distinctiveness as applied to clothing and footwear); In re American Home Prods. Corp., 226 USPQ 327 (TTAB 1985) (tri-colored, three-dimensional, circular-shaped design found to have become distinctive of analgesic and muscle relaxant tablets); In re Star Pharms., Inc., 225 USPQ 209 (TTAB 1985) (evidence found insufficient to establish that two-colored drug capsules and multi-colored seeds or granules contained therein had become distinctive of methyltestosterone). A mere statement of long use is not sufficient. See, e.g., Benetton, 48 USPQ2d at 1216-17 (despite long use, record devoid of any evidence that the green rectangular background design has been used, promoted, or advertised as a mark). The applicant must demonstrate that the color has acquired source-indicating significance in the minds of consumers.

As noted above, the commercial impression of a color may change depending on the object to which it is applied. Therefore, evidence submitted to demonstrate acquired distinctiveness of a color may show consumer recognition with respect to certain objects, but not for other objects. See Thrifty, 274 F.3d at 1353, 61 USPQ2d at 1124. Cf. Qualitex, 514 U.S. at 163, 34 USPQ2d at 1162-63 (“The imaginary word ‘Suntost,’ or the words ‘Suntost Marmalade,’ on a jar of orange jam immediately would signal a brand or a product ‘source’; the jam’s orange color does not do so. But, over time, customers may come to treat a particular color on a product or its packaging (say, a color that in context seems unusual, such as pink on a firm’s insulating material or red on the head of a large industrial bolt) as signifying a brand. And, if so, that color would have come to identify and distinguish the goods -- i. e., ‘to indicate’ their ‘source...’”).