Companies & Industries

Who owns the colour purple? Cadbury’s legal battle for a hue

Trademarking colours isn’t easy

Source images: iStock

Source images: iStock

Coke cans are red, Tiffany boxes are blue. Using memorable colours consistently is one way to cement a brand’s image with consumers. But as Cadbury recently discovered, it can be devilishly difficult to acquire exclusive legal rights to a particular hue. The chocolate maker has used a distinct shade of purple (Pantone 2685C) on its Dairy Milk wrappers since 1914, but recent attempts to trademark that colour in Britain have been thwarted by its arch rival Nestlé. In October, a three-judge panel concluded Cadbury’s vaguely worded trademark provided an unfair advantage over competitors. Cadbury says, “The British public has grown up understanding [purple’s] link with our chocolate” and is mulling further appeals. It may win even if it loses—the expense of litigation may dissuade competitors from borrowing its colours. Just to be safe, here are a dozen other hues you may think twice about before using.

  • In 2006 Imperial Tobacco trademarked the colour orange (in any shade) on its Canadian packaging. JTI-Macdonald appealed, but the Federal Court upheld the trademark. “The colour orange is not an element that forms part of the mark,” the court ruled in June, “the colour is the mark.”
  • According to documents filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Coca-Cola applied for trademark protection for this shade of red in 2002. It abandoned the effort several years later.
  • When Yves Saint Laurent began selling shoes with red-laquered soles, Christian Laboutin saw red. In 2012 a U.S. court found Laboutin could receive trademark protection only to the extent his famously red soles contrasted with the rest of the shoe. The Laurent shoes, being entirely red, didn’t infringe. Both brands claimed victory.