Who Owns A Color: Part 1

Because color is everywhere and so important in all our lives it seems that it automatically belongs to everyone, without restriction. We assume that – like the air we breath – color is just part of the public domain.

Can it be that someone could own a color or have exclusive rights to it? Well I explored the issue a bit and the answer is…maybe…yes…to a degree…sometimes.

In the business world there are instances where a specific color has become so identified with a particular company or product that the color seems to be an essential part of that product or company. In some of these cases the use of a specific color by a single company has gained a measure of legal protection.

This kind of trademark protection for a color is generally intended to limit confusion in specific markets. When two or more companies are selling similar products to the same potential customers – and color is a critical factor in marketing and presentation – the law can step in and tip the scales in one way or the other. Even then, court rulings have been quite nuanced. Here are two examples:

1. English chocolatier Cadbury waged a legal battle against Australian candy maker Darrell Lea over the use of the color “Cadbury Purple.” This case was settled out-of-court in Cadbury’s favor. In another case Cadbury fought the Swiss chocolate company Nestlé over the same color and trademark protection issues. This time they were only able to gain exclusive rights for their milk chocolate products.

cadbury logo and color

2. The French shoe designer Christian Louboutin SA sells expensive high fashion women’s shoes that have a red sole. This flash of a highly recognizable color lets the world know that you are wearing a very exclusive and expensive product. When Yves Saint Laurent started selling a line of women’s shoes that were all red (including the soles) Louboutin sued to stop them. The courts eventually settled on a compromise that said Louboutin had the trademark rights to its red soles but only if they contrasted with the color of the rest of the shoe. YSL could continue to market its all red (soles included) women’s shoes.

louboutin shoes with red soles

Unlike the above examples, neither of the U.S. companies Target nor Coca-Cola can restrict each other’s right to the nearly identical red they both use. Retailer Target and soft drink manufacturer Coca-Cola are not in direct competition in the same marketplace niche and therefore the use of the same red is not confusing to customers.

logos for Target and Coke and the color red

In the art world this issue has never been anywhere near as legalistic. The loosely-defined “ownership” of color is much more generalized and only used to identify trends, styles or stages in an artist’s career. Pablo Picasso’s so-called Blue Period and his Rose Period are well known examples.

It is rare that an artist would lay claim to a specific color. Rare…but it has happened.

In the late 1950’s French artist Yves Klein worked with a paint manufacturer to develop a very intense version of ultramarine blue paint he called International Klein Blue (IKB). He registered the paint with the French government so that he would be noted as its inventor, and he used it in many installations, paintings, sculptures and performances. It became his personal signature. He did not, however, attempt to restrict other people from using it.

Yves Klein sculpture with gold leaf and Klein blue

In the next post I’ll tell you about a contemporary artist who has taken this issue to a whole other level. It’s an interesting story. I’ll also tell you about some of the backlash the artist has generated.

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