TMEP 1202.17: Universal Symbols in Marks

October 2017 Edition of the TMEP

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1202.17    Universal Symbols in Marks

The term "universal symbol" refers to a design, icon, or image that is commonly used in an informational manner and conveys a widely recognized or readily understood meaning when displayed in its relevant context. See Webster’s New World College Dictionary 1356 (3rd ed. 1997) (defining "symbol" as "something that stands for, represents, or suggests another thing; esp., an object used to represent something abstract); id. at 1460 (defining "universal" as "used, intended to be used, or understood by all"). Universal symbols are typically available for use by anyone to quickly provide notice of a particular condition or to indicate a characteristic of an object or area. Thus, they appear in a variety of places, such as on road signs, near dangerous machinery, on medical apparatus, in hazardous locations, on product warning labels, or on materials connected with recycling activities. Usually, the context in which a universal symbol appears is crucial in determining the symbol’s significance.

Matter that is specifically protected by statute or registered as a mark should not be considered to be a universal symbol. See TMEP §1205. For example, certain symbols that have a widely recognized meaning, such as the Red Cross, are subject to specific statutory protections restricting their use and may be refused under various provisions of the Trademark Act. See TMEP §1205.01.

The following are examples of common universal symbols:

Description: image of Recycling symbol

The recycling symbol typically designates materials that are recyclable or recycled, but may also indicate that goods or services involve recycling or are otherwise environmentally friendly. See, e.g.,, Recycling Symbols Made Easy, (accessed Aug. 24, 2012).

Description: International radiation symbol

The international radiation symbol indicates proximity to a source of radiation or radioactive materials. See, e.g., U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Servs., Examples of Radiation Signs and Symbols for Work Areas, Buildings, Transportation of Cargo, (accessed Aug. 24, 2012).

Description: Biohazard symbol

The biohazard symbol indicates the presence of pathogens or other matter that is potentially harmful or poses a health risk. See, e.g., U.S. Department of Energy, Berkeley Lab, Biohazardous Waste Labels, (accessed Aug. 14, 2017).

Description: universal prohibition symbol

The universal prohibition symbol, which usually appears superimposed over another image or wording, is a visual representation of "no," "not," or "prohibited." See, e.g., Free, Prohibition Signs, (accessed Aug. 24, 2012).