Did you know that color, sound, scent, and hashtags can be protected by trademarks?
Traditionally, trademarks are words or symbols used to identify the source of a product or service. Most trademarks are word marks such as COCA-COLA; or design marks/logos such as ; and slogans, such as Coca-Cola’s “It’s The Real Thing.”
However, the list of things that can be registered as trademarks under the Lanham Act is actually very broad. There are practically no limitations to the subject matter of registrable marks, so long as the mark is capable of acting as an identifier of source, whether because it is inherently distinctive, or it has acquired distinctiveness and the mark is not functional.
Here is a list of non-traditional trademarks:
The registrability of a color mark depends on the manner in which the proposed color mark is used. Color takes on the characteristics of the object or surface to which it is applied, and the commercial impression of color will change accordingly. Color marks are never inherently distinctive, and cannot be registered on the Principal Register without a showing of acquired distinctiveness.
Color, whether a single overall color or multiple colors applied in a specific and arbitrary fashion, is usually perceived as an ornamental feature of the goods or services. However, color can function as a mark if it is used in the manner of a trademark or service mark and if it is perceived by the purchasing public to identify and distinguish the goods or services on or in connection with which it is used and to indicate their source.
Sound and Scent Mark
A sound mark identifies and distinguishes a product or service through audio rather than visual means. Sound marks function as source indicators when they “assume a definite shape or arrangement” and “create in the listener’s mind an association of the sound” with a good or service. Some famous sound trademarks include the iconic ticking of 60 Minutes’ stopwatch that CBS trademarked and the sound of a lightsaber, FYI, is described as “an oscillating humming buzz created by combining feedback from a microphone with a projector motor sound.”
Some scents that are protected by trademarks include the scent of Play-Doh, which is described as “a unique scent formed through the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough;” and the “flowery musk scent” in verizon stores.
A trademark applicant that wishes to register a sound or a scent trademark is not required to submit a drawing if the mark consists only of a sound, a scent, or other completely non-visual matter. For these types of marks, the applicant must submit a detailed description of the mark.
A “hashtag” is a form of metadata consisting of a word or phrase prefixed with the symbol “#”. Hashtags are often used on social networking sites to identify or facilitate a search for a keyword or topic of interest.
As hashtags became increasingly more popular on social media, in 2013 the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recognized hashtags as registrable trademarks “only if [the mark] functions as an identifier of the source of the applicant’s goods or services.” The addition of the term HASHTAG or the hash symbol (#) to an otherwise unregistrable mark typically will not render it registrable.
Some examples of hashtag mark the USPTO has granted registration include:
#EVERYDAYMADEWELL for “online retail store and retail store services in the fields of clothing, footwear, bags, sunglasses, jewelry, watches, and fashion accessories”
#HOWDOYOUKFC for “restaurant services
#THESELFIE for “photography and videography equipment, namely, remote shutter releases
Unique challenges applicants of non-traditional trademarks face
Federal registration of trademarks generally confers certain benefits to the trademark owner However, non-traditional trademarks face unique challenges that traditional trademarks don’t face in registering with the USPTO. Non-traditional trademarks can take longer and cost more to register and in addition to the distinctiveness and non-functionality hurdles, challenges exist in clearing the marks for registration due to the complexity involved in searching Non-traditional trademarks on TESS; fulfilling technical requirements for registration involved in providing the appropriate drawing and specimens for marks that are not easily depicted on paper; and the unique unpredictability due to a lack of successful precedents to provide guidance. Even if it is registered, a non-traditional trademark may be difficult to enforce. Furthermore, the inherent challenges in searching non-traditional marks make it hard to monitor infringement of the mark.
If you need help with your non-traditional trademark, contact us today to discuss your trademark protection strategies with an experienced trademark practitioner.
Judy Yen is an associate in Carbon Law Group’s Los Angeles office. She joined our firm in 2019 and her practice focuses on representing emerging companies in intellectual property and business transactional matters.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Judy is a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese. She has used her international legal experience, language, and bicultural skills to represent businesses and investors from the Greater China region in cross-border business expansion plans and execution in investing in the United States. Prior to joining Carbon Law Group, Judy worked for Paul Hastings LLP in their Shanghai office, where she gained valuable experience in international corporate law, including working on two IPO projects.
Judy is admitted to practice law in California. She graduated from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles in May 2019. In law school, Judy was a member of the Fashion Law Clinic, Transactional Negotiation Team and Entertainment Moot Court. She received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Accounting from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Judy grew up in a family of artists and entrepreneurs who had fostered her passion for art and business. She is an avid foodie who loves to both explore cool restaurants and try new recipes at home. She also likes oil painting, swimming, and hiking.