Can You Own a Color?

Color-fans can now channel their fascination into a worthy cause: OwnaColour.com, sponsored by Glidden Paint, is auctioning off shades of the digital rainbow for charity. For a $2 donation to UNICEF (or more if you wish), you can select and name your very own shade. OwnaColour also provides real-time infographics tracking favorite shades by gender, country and so forth. (Thanks to James Hirschfeld for clueing me in.)

I love the idea – cut to me, bee-lining it to buy the world’s most eccentric shade – but it also got me thinking: can you actually buy colors? Not too long ago I blogged here about International Klein Blue, a patented shade by artist and agent provocateur Yves Klein. Today’s post explores other real-world examples of companies and people trying to do just that.


A much-ballyhooed recent example: in 2010 Cadbury won a legal battle protecting their signature purple (Pantone 2685C) against infringement by Darrell Lea, a New South Wales candy manufacturer whose purple packaging on a certain sweet edged too close to Cadbury Purple for comfort.

The case illustrates a classic way one can “own” a color: trademark a particular shade in a given industry or product category, fund an IP-litigation firm handsomely, and a particular shade can indeed be exclusively yours. Just ask UPS about their brown, McDonald’s about their red-and-yellow, or Coca-Cola about its signature red.


UPS’ campaign “What Can Brown Do for You?” is a fascinating case-in-point. The tagline sparked a whole meme of imitators in unrelated industries, some actual trademark infringements (like New Jersey attorney Samuel Z. Brown’s misuse of the tagline for his website search) to plain spoofs with varying levels of tastefulness. UPS pulled the plug on the campaign after a good long run – 2002 – 2010 – so spoof-sensitivity may or may not have played a role in the decision to move on.

UDS T-Shirt at desi-threads.com

From Pittsburgh Steelrs wide receiver Antonio Brown’s site

Other eye-opening takes on the idea of owning a color: BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin used the Cadbury Purple flak as an opportunity to suss out more color-themed trademark controversies. She (and her commenters) unearthed some great ones, including several non-traditional patent cases like pink insulation (Owens-Corning), NBC’s “ding ding ding” sound (Reg. No. 523,616), and plumeria-scented sewing thread (Reg. No. 1,639,128).

Our good buddies at Under Consideration’s Brand New also have eagle-eyes for this sort of thing. My two faves aren’t color-related infringements per se, but still thumping-good reads: IHOP v. IHOP (Prayer v. Pancakes) and the Rat City Roller Derby vs. Starbucks.

Any stellar examples of corporate color-owning we missed?

Poster for Rip! A Remix Manifesto, a film about copyright law by Colin Dunn



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6 thoughts on “Can You Own a Color?

  1. Jude Stewart

    All interesting points – thanks for sharing. My own feeling about OwnaColor by Glidden falls somewhere in between the opinions expressed by Munsell Color and Thurmond. They’re just harnessing a slightly proprietary feeling about a color to drive donations, which seems fine to me. In light of SOPA / PIPA legislation, which resulted in blackouts all around the Internet the day this post was released, we thought it made sense to consider what it would seriously mean if shades of the rainbow got similarly and exclusively co-opted, by corporations or governments. As for K, yes, Tiffany blue is a biggie. I’m not aware of any landmark legal cases in which they defended “their” blue from a direct competitor using it, but I’m sure they’re out there. Any other legendary copyright disputes specifically around color you can think of? Add ‘em here, please!

  2. Thurmond

    Great article. It really made me question my motives in philantropy. Do I just want a color just to say I got one or do I want to give to help UNICEF. I can just do both and make it easy on someone else and myself as well.

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  4. Munsell Color

    Fighting over colors is silly, and no company should be able to ‘own’ one. The OwnAColor site is a simple fundraiser, fun, goodnatured, and not meant to start lawsuits over who gets what color. But companies bickering over the rights to colors they use on their products and logos is a bit foolish.

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