Copyrighting a colour

Our story last week about Cadbury’s High Court victory to secure exclusive rights to Pantone 2685c purple in chocolate packaging certainly hit a nerve.

Pantone 2685c
Pantone 2685c

Picked up by the Guardian, the New Statesman and blogs around the globe, the story led to debate over whether Cadbury should be able to trademark a colour, what this might mean for brands, and whether this would eventually leave designers with just one or two Pantone shades to choose from – with all the headline colours having snapped up the likes of Coca-Cola, Barclays, Virgin etc.

In answer to the question ‘should Cadbury be able to trademark the colour purple’, my response would be, well, yes, within reason.

It’s important to note that Cadbury isn’t the first company to have gone down this route, indeed, just last month Christian Louboutin won a US court battle to trademark its red soles.

AA, Royal Mail and BP have also, at various times, registered their colours for trademark protection, and understandably so, given that surveys show colour to be the strongest visual element of a brand.

Going back to the Cadbury example, it does seem somewhat unfair that a company that has been using the purple colour in its chocolate packaging for just under a century should have no legal protection of it.

The ramifications of this kind of decision for designers are rather less clear-cut however.

Many commentators on our story and elsewhere are rightly concerned about the precedent this might set. Could there ever be a case where, for example, companies could get exclusive rights to particular colours across all media/uses?

Several people have drawn parallels with URLs – the modern curse of the designer – try finding a dotcom for a decent new brand name that hasn’t already been registered.

Could Pantone colours also go down this route (and here’s an intriguing thought – could you ‘squat’ Pantone shades? Ie buy the rights to Pantone 485 and flog them back to Coke?)

And what might happen in sectors such as health or finance, where most of the big players all use a very narrow spectrum of blue? Check out this intriguing Guardian graphic for a look at the ‘most valuable’ colours across different sectors – who would win the rights to them?

While taken in isolation, cases like Cadbury wanting to protect its chocolate packaging seem fair enough – but if you see it as the worst kind of precedent, then it could lead to a situation where your Pantone colour book features sludge green (Pantone 5757c) mud brown (Pantone 4635) and nothing else.

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  • Graham Walker November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Those two colours wouldn’t even be available, the Army would have ’em.. Re Cadbury, or any other company who successfully secure a monopoly on a particular colour, let’s bare in mind there are similar shades either side of a Pantone ref for use..or would they have to secured as well? Personally, I can’t see that happening. Question: Do Pantone get royalties for this?

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