Boise State recently licensed its blue field design to Hosei University near Tokyo, Japan. See article here. It turns out that Boise State possesses a trademark registration (U.S. Trademark re. No. 3,707,623) – which protects the color blue used on artificial turf in a stadium. Boise State’s blue stadium field trademark and licensing deal is a good example of the value of some of the more atypical forms of trademark protection and the need to think outside the box when thinking about trademark registrations.
A blue football field is not normally what comes to mind when one thinks of trademarks, but it is very much protectable. When the blue field appears on TV, you immediately recognize Boise State’s brand. The blue field indicates to the consumer that this is an authentic Boise State football experience. And Boise State wants to keep it that way. That is why it filed for US Federal Trademark protection on its unique color scheme, allowing them to prevent others from copying its field and diluting Boise’s brand equity. If other Universities were able to paint their fields blue, Boise State would lose its uniqueness. Boise State was probably less concerned about dilution issues outside of the U.S. and hence, felt comfortable licensing it in Japan. Boise State likely would be much more hesitant to license under its trademark registration within the United States.
Boise State’s blue turf is an interesting, unconventional trademark. The non-traditional trademark protection that Boise State’s unique field bests fall under is “trade dress”. Trade dress is the legal term for the distinctive, non-functional appearance of a product or packaging that signifies the source of a product to consumers. Sometimes the language “look and feel” is used as a way to explain trade dress, e.g., the look and feel of a product.
Boise’s blue field certainly meets the first test. It is highly distinctive. The non-functional requirement is added so that a registrant cannot protect an essential functional design element. Say Boise State was somehow able to register a green colored field in a stadium, it would be impossible for anyone else to use a green field without Boise’s permission. As green is the color of grass (and most artificial turf), it would most likely be considered a functional element of the field. Boise’s blue does not add function to the field. Plus, Boise State has developed strong consumer recognition associated with its blue colored field. So its blue turf is a highly distinctive, non-functional product appearance suitable for trademark protection.
In addition to trade dress, there are several other non-traditional brand indicators that are eligible for trademark protection. NBC’s distinctive jingle is a sound trademark. The color “Tiffany Blue” is trademarked and protected by the famous jewelry store of the same name. The Chrysler Building and the Space Needle are examples of architecture that have also been trademarked.
Trademark registration strategy can be critical in protecting a solid brand reputation. A business owner may want to consider various forms of trademark protection that can help distinguish their brand from the competition. Trade dress, color scheme, and even sound marks are a few of the brand elements that should be analyzed. If your brand involves some of these unique brand identifiers, you should seek advice from a veteran trademark lawyer to help secure proper protections.