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Signs of our times: introducing universal sign marks

It's increasingly common for marketers to want to use design marks without any words. An article in our latest issue looks at some of the trade mark issues this trend raises

TwitterStarbucksShell logoTwo years ago I wrote a blog post about the growing use of trade marks comprising logos but no text. That post arose partly from an interview we published with David Cho of AT&T, and partly from some articles in marketing publications and online.

In the two years since then, the trend has continued and probably even accelerated, driven by recognition of the appeal of simple images online and in social media (think about the popularity of emojis), the desire to cross borders of language and script, and possibly also the interest among marketers in using personalised names instead of or as well as brand names (for example Coca-Cola and Starbucks).

We felt the trend raised some interesting trade mark issues that ought to be explored more fully. Luckily, earlier this year I had a conversation with Lisa Pearson of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. As some readers will know, Lisa wrote an article for Managing IP in 2008 titled "How fluid marks can enhance your brand" which led to her being presented with a 2009 Burton Award for Legal Achievement. She also chairs the IP Outer Borders Team of MARQUES, whose members look into various issues on the fringes of trade mark law.

Verbal-visualIt took just a little persuasion to convince Lisa that she should write an article on logos without words or, as she has since dubbed them, "universal sign marks". Along with her colleagues Jill Tomlinson and Sam Kilb, she has produced an original, well illustrated and thoughtful piece on the topic. 

One of the points the authors make is that it's not really correct to call these marks "logos" at all, as logotypes are stylised presentations of words. Instead, they have come up with a classification and labelling system (left) that illustrates the different types of design marks, and in the article they examine them from both a marketing and a legal perspective. 

They also discuss eight best practices for brand owners who plan to use such universal sign marks, spanning questions such as choosing a symbol, identifying it, registering it (including whether to register separately from the word mark and whether to do so in colour or black and white) and avoiding the pitfalls that can arise. 

The article includes various examples and case studies, as well as links to other resources on this topic, and I recommend it to anyone involved in protecting or enforcing trade marks. You can read it online (subscription or free trial required) now or, if you prefer paper, in our November issue, which will be with subscribers next week. Copies of that issue will also be available to pick up at the INTA Leadership Meeting and ASIPI Annual Conference, so look out for it there. Finally, I have a very limited number of complimentary copies that I would be happy to post out to anyone who can't otherwise read it but would like to do so: email me your details if that is the case.

I hope you'll agree with me that the article raises lots of original and useful points. However, we recognise that this is a developing area and it is not the last word on the topic. In particular, it would be interesting to get perspectives on some of the issues raised from elsewhere in the world, especially where the law is fundamentally different from that in the United States. We would certainly welcome comments on the article and proposals for follow-up pieces.

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