China Trademarks: The Color of Money

China trademark registration

I recently responded to a client on whether a trademark application for a color device (aka logo) should be in color or black-and-white. As I wrote,

According to trademark practice in China, registration of a black and white device in China would protect the logo regardless of the actual color scheme used on the device, and for that reason we typically recommend our clients file an application for the black-and-white version of their trademark.

The exception is if the color scheme for the device is part of the trademark, such as UPS’ brown-and-beige, FedEx’s purple-and-orange, John Deere’s green-and-yellow.

But you know what can’t be protected in China? A single color. Article 8 of China’s Trademark Law reads as follows:

An application may be made to register as a trademark any mark, including any word, device, any letter of the alphabet, any number, three-dimensional symbol, colour combination and sound, or any combination thereof, that identifies and distinguishes the goods of a natural person, legal person, or other organization from those of others. [bold added for emphasis]

We’ll ignore the quaint British spelling of “color” and focus instead on the important word: “combination.” What this means is that China will only approve a trademark registration for a combination of colors, i.e., two or more colors used together. So Tiffany blue is not protectable in China. Or T-Mobile magenta. Or Owens-Corning pink. Or UPS brown (aka Pantone Matching System 462C), which is protected in the U.S. by U.S. Trademark Reg. No. 2,901,090 for transportation and delivery services, as applied to the surface of delivery vehicles and uniforms.

For most companies that use color marks, the requirement of a color combination isn’t an issue. For most, the color isn’t itself an essential part of the trademark. And for those that do consider color an essential part of the trademark, the color is already in a combination or can be easily made to be part of a combination.

So though UPS can register the color brown by itself as a trademark in the United States, in China it would have to use the brown-and-beige color combination. And though Caterpillar may want a trademark for the particular shade of yellow it uses on its logo and equipment, it could instead register the yellow-and-black combination that appears on its “Cat” logo as a China trademark.

To register a color combination as a trademark in China, the application must include a color sample as well as a Pantone color. And the color combination must be sufficiently distinctive with respect to the covered goods/services. Trying to register red-and-gold as a color combination on wedding services in China would not get you far.

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