In a recently-filed federal lawsuit against AT&T subsidiary Aio Wireless, telecommunications giant T-Mobile alleges that Aio Wireless deliberately chose the color magenta to advertise, promote and market a competing product, and in doing so, violated the trademark laws and committed unfair competition.
“With full knowledge of T-Mobile’s use of magenta, AT&T’s subsidiary chose — out of all the colors in the spectrum — magenta to advertise, market and promote its wireless services in direct competition with T-Mobile,” the complaint alleges.
“Aio does not use the orange coverage map of its parent company, but instead uses in its stores and on its website a magenta coverage map that is strikingly similar in color to the one used by T-Mobile."
However, what exactly is the "magenta" shade that T-Mobile uses, and does T-Mobile really own it as a trademark?
T-Mobile has undoubtedly been aggressive protecting magenta as a key part of its brand.
In 2008, it hand delivered a cease and desist letter to Engadget, demanding the immediate discontinuance of the use of the color magenta in connection with Engadget Mobile.
In the more recent fight with Aio, T-Mobile's court filings reference a number of trademark registrations issued to its parent Deutsche Telekom AG for the color magenta alone, "which is the approximate equivalent of pantone matching system rhodamine red u, used on the background of product displays and advertisements found in a store."
However, the Washington Post notes that this trademark translates to hex #c63678 in the pantone color coding system. The Post's reporters also noted that Aio's version of "magenta" maps to #960051. In other words, not all magentas are the same, and it will be up to the District Court to sort out if there is a viable claim of infringement here.
But can T-Mobile really lay legal claim to a color to begin with?
The answer is absolutely, as a matter of established U.S. trademark law. Colors can function as powerful indicators of source, when they are not serving a functional purpose. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court definitively pronounced on the subject in 1995, finding that colors could acquire distinctiveness over time, and serve the purpose of a trademark. As we have also discussed, however, how this regime applies to individual cases is tricky.
For example, the color candy apple red as applied to shoe soles was registered as a trademark by Christian Louboutin, but was later limited by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals when Louboutin sought to stop Yves St. Laurent's sale of monochromatic red shoes.