Recently, lawyers at Deutsche Telekom, the parent company of T-Mobile, threatened a small insurance company over its use of a color. T-Mobile has a trademark on Pantone Rhodamine Red U, commonly known as magenta, and the insurance company Lemonade uses it as a branding tool.
Imagine receiving that letter. “You’re now in big trouble if you use a color that’s been turning up in your drawings since you were two. Tell your designers to drop the M in CMYK moving forward, or else . . . ”
T-Mobile certainly isn’t the only company to trademark a color. Think UPS’s brown-painted trucks and Tiffany’s robin’s egg boxes. The arms race over color trademarks goes back to the 1980s, when a company called Owens Corning claimed a trademark for the pink it used in fiberglass insulation.
The problem is that color can’t really be owned. And trying to crush other companies’ use of color is not only petty; it completely misses the point of branding.
Let’s consider why a company might trademark a color in the first place. In T-Mobile’s case, the company argued that customers might get confused if another company uses magenta, because it’s so strongly associated with T-Mobile’s brand.
Now take that argument to its logical end. The Pantone Matching System library contains 1,867 colors, blended from different ratios of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Against that universe of sometimes barely perceptible color variations, there are hundreds of millions of companies worldwide. If every commercial interest claimed a color, we’d be living in a black-and-white world by lunchtime. (That’s only assuming the law would provide a loophole for the colors black and white.)
If you think about it, the idea of owning a color is not that different from the idea that our water and air would be better served under commercial ownership. Color is a universal palette, a raw material. When companies use their cash reserves to horde pieces of a shared resource, they’re being restrictive, not creative or competitive.
More to the point, color is only part of what makes a brand distinctive—and keeps customers coming back for more. Even more important are attributes like how well you serve your customers and how effective your product is. Companies only distract themselves by thinking their monopoly on celedon or periwinkle is key to their competitive advantage. T-mobile reveals the insecurity of its brand by insisting that its value proposition depends on owning the shade of the fuchsia growing freely on your windowsill.
Don’t get me wrong. As a creative by trade, I know a carefully composed color palette is an important element in developing compelling visual environments and communications. Nor do I think that all trademark, copyright, or patent law is flawed. An inventor who conceives of a new product should be able to protect her innovation. A name, a system, a combination of elements assembled to create something new and add value should be protected from blatant copycats. The key difference is how companies assemble and deliver a bundle of ideas, not simply claim a single compositional element available in nature.
Kenn Fine is executive creative director of Fine in Portland, Oregon.