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So, today as I received an email from UPS, I read the disclaimer at the end and it said:

© 2016 United Parcel Service of America, Inc. UPS, the UPS brandmark, and the color brown are trademarks of United Parcel Service of America, Inc. All rights reserved.

What exactly does it mean that the "color brown" is a trademark of someone? Does it refer specifically to the brown in the logo's arrangement? And if so, anyone that uses that same color is subject to trademark infringement?

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    Brown vans are just not normal, the only good reason to paint your van brown is to make it look like UPS, hence I expect that UPS would win a trademark case over it. Jan 28, 2016 at 9:12
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    Same with magenta and the German Telekom in the telecommunication industry.
    – DevSolar
    Jan 28, 2016 at 13:49
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    You can use brown to sell housewares, but not shipping services.
    – phoog
    Jan 28, 2016 at 14:28
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    For US users, @DevSolar is talking about T-Mobile.
    – Random832
    Jan 28, 2016 at 17:08
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    @NinoŠkopac That's my point. The company called "German Telekom" or "Deutsche Telekom" in other countries, is called T-Mobile in the US, and is not known to most Americans by the other names.
    – Random832
    Jan 28, 2016 at 17:36

5 Answers 5

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Inks for reproduction can be mixed to create very custom colors. It is entirely possible to trademark a special "recipe" of ink which results in the same color each time.

So yes. In terms of branding -- colors, or specific color combinations, can be trademarked.

Don't confuse "trademark" with "ownership" or "copyright". Trademark merely means in that particular industry the company has staked a claim on a specific color or color combination. Trademarks are more about preventing brand confusion within the same industry. You're free to use the same colors in a completely separate industry and even in some cases in a completely separate manner within the same industry.

Freakonomics has an article about trademarking colors. It mostly alludes to fashion, but it's still a valid article.

If you want to delve more into branding and color, Color Matters has some additional information.

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    Trademarked colors are not secret. Also, UPS isn't claiming trademark on a particular shade of brown, they're claiming it on the color brown, period.
    – phoog
    Jan 28, 2016 at 14:23
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    phoog, from trademark registration 2,901,090 (expand the "Mark Information" section): "Description of Mark: The mark consists of the color chocolate brown, which is the approximate equivalent of Pantone Matching System 462C, as applied to the entire surface of vehicles and uniforms. The mark consists of the color brown alone. The broken lines indicate the position of the mark and do not form part of the mark." Jan 28, 2016 at 17:09
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    Sure, and IANAL, but I read this as describing "vehicles and uniforms entirely covered in a brown resembling this example brown", since they said " approximate equivalent of ". Jan 28, 2016 at 17:21
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    Btw, I suspect the reason the description of the mark says "approximate equivalent of Pantone 462C", is that they don't necessarily get the paint they use actually certified by Pantone, or some issue along those lines, so they're not prepared to swear under penalty of perjury that it is always precisely Pantone 462C. When you describe the mark, you describe the mark as best you can. You don't have to describe "the mark or things that look a bit like it" because that's covered anyway by the relevant law. Jan 28, 2016 at 22:22
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    @phoog * shrug * The point is, claiming this is a trademark on "the color brown", without any further qualification, is not actually an accurate statement.
    – recognizer
    Jan 28, 2016 at 23:31
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The other answers have somewhat implicitly already answered this particular question, but I wanted to point out an important detail.

anyone that uses that same color is subject to trademark infringement?

No. Trademarks are only registered for a particular industry. For UPS, that would be logistics, parcel delivery, transportation, and some related ones. Also, trademarks are for, well, trade.

So, practically speaking, you only infringe when you are a competitor. (That's not quite true, but somewhat close.)

You can see for yourself, what exactly the claims of the trademarks are. The USPTO has a registry of all trademarks, the interesting ones are serial numbers 75039323, 75065911, and 76408109.

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Lack of confusion

The point of trademarks is to prevent customers confusing companies, and prevent companies from misleading (intentionally or not) customers that they are some other company (e.g. better known, better reputation, with more advertising) or related to them.

UPS trademarks essentially mean that if you are in their industry, then using similar branding is prohibited. Trademarking a particular color means that they consider using that or similar color a significant part of that branding - if you run a company doing package deliveries and have either similar logos, similar name, similar color scheme, etc, then UPS may sue you on trademark grounds, and the registered trademark on the color will mean that saying "oh, we don't think that using this color in this industry is associated with UPS" is not valid.

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Yes but it is that specific shade and only in the logistics industry.

Cadbury have trade marked purple.

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    This is correct. If another delivery company used the same colour it could cause confusion, which would more than likely have been done on a purpose.
    – Terry
    Jan 28, 2016 at 8:06
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    Which specific shade? They're claiming trademark on "the color brown," not on any particular variety of brown.
    – phoog
    Jan 28, 2016 at 14:26
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    This answer seems contradictory. You've said "that specific shade", but UPS are claiming "the color brown", and your example is Cadbury trademarking "purple". Neither make any reference to a shade.
    – JBentley
    Jan 28, 2016 at 16:45
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    To infringe the trade mark the brown used must be sufficiently close to UPS brown to cause confusion i.e. It is inherent in the nature of trade marks that is that particular shade.
    – Dale M
    Jan 28, 2016 at 19:24
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    @phoog no, they're claiming trademark on "the color chocolate brown", as is blindingly obvious to see.
    – hobbs
    Jan 28, 2016 at 21:44
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I don't think UPS is making any extraordinary claim, because they are stating this in the context of trademarks.

They are putting people on notice that they are guarding their signature brown color in the context in which they have a right, which is where that might lead to confusion with UPS's services - shipping boxes, delivery vans, private mailbox stores, etc. And they have some real exposure here.

First are the signature UPS vans, which also have signature fiberglass nose trim. They replace them by the thousands and sell the used ones. They are painted white before sale, but that is a cost they could escape if they could enforce their claim in the color. Also, the paint is very cheap, and the next owner will want to repaint them properly - brown might be a tempting choice.

Aside from selling to desperate (Amazon contractors who need trucks Right Now and can't wait in line for new ones) or small-fry (two guys and a truck) type delivery services, former UPS vans are wildly popular for those building a Tiny House onboard, aka #VanLife. This is increasingly popular due to pressures in the housing market - a Google employee even famously did it. However, people with houses do not like it. UPS does not want people looking askance at brown vans in their community, so they do not want to be associated with #VanLife.

Another area of vulnerability is that The UPS Store is franchised. Family-owned franchise operators are made restless by decisions made by UPS Corporate - ask any of them how they feel about Amazon returns "business". As such you have defections, and UPS wants to deter this by forcing "apostates" to spend money updating signs, trim and furniture to not be brown.

They could make all these claims without the disclaimer you note, but the disclaimer makes it easier to convince a jury that the actor reasonably should have known they were infringing.

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