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Can You ‘Trademark’ a Sonic Logo?


A-MNEMONIC's founder and creative director Toby Jarvis explains the trademarking process and its differences to copyright law

Can You ‘Trademark’ a Sonic Logo?

We’re being increasingly asked by both agencies and brands, about trademarking their newly commissioned sonic logo.  

There are over 250 audio trademarks, or ‘soundmark’ or ‘phonetic trademark’ or ‘sensory trademarks’ in the EU and more in the pipeline. Perhaps a surprise as that’s only a tiny 0.017% of the total 1.4 million verified trademarks!  

It’s important to note, trademark law is very different to copyright.  All our original musical compositions at A-MNEMONIC are protected by copyright law. And no doubt the musical works of other music agencies, record companies and publishers. However, trademark law is fundamentally different to copyright law.

Which sonic logos have been trademarked?

Some of the most recognisable sonic logos that have been successfully trademarked include the MGM Lion roar, the Yahoo yodel, and McDonald's 'I'm Lovin' It', 'The ‘Ho Ho Ho’ of the Jolly Green Giant, the MGM Lion roar, Twentieth Century Fox, the NBC news chimes, the AT&T mnemonic, Netflix du-duum, the Yahoo yodel, Intel, McDonald’s I’m Lovin it’. All big international brands. The list goes on.

So, what if your sonic logo is a sound as opposed to a musical logo?

The sound of American fire truck sirens has been trademarked, as has the ‘click’ of the iconic Zippo lighter, Homer Simpsons 'Doh’, Tarzan’s ‘ahh-ahhh-ahh.

So, what are the requirements for trademarking a soundmark?

  • Uniqueness - It must uniquely identify the commercial origin of the product or service.
  • Distinctiveness. It must be unequivocally novel, original and distinct from similar brands. It must have ‘distinctive character’.
  • Incorporation. This means the sound has been in use, widely and long enough to be synonymous with the brand. E.g. the sound of a Zippo lighter or the MGM lion roar.  They are described as having ‘acquired distinctiveness’.

However, not all sounds can be trademarked. Trademarking a sound that is not musical in nature can be particularly challenging, as the statutory requirements are more stringent.

What sounds can’t you trademark?

  • Anything offensive or misleading. 
  • Anything ubiquitous or commonplace.
  • It can’t be merely descriptive. 
  • It can’t sound like a previously registered soundmark.
  • Functional sounds that come from the product. E.g. the sound of a fizzy drink can open, the power on/off switch, mobile phone/ app beeps. These are classed as ‘characteristic function’. These cannot be trademarked. Unless of course, the sound is sufficiently distinctive and substantially different from industry norms, custom and practice.
  • It can’t be overly long, or overly short (!)

In 1994 Harley-Davidson applied to trademark the distinctive ‘thump-thump-thump’ of their single-crank pin V8 twin engine. Rival manufacturers were trying to mimic their unique exhaust sound. Harley Davidson, understandably, argued the sound of their engines 'uniquely identified their commercial origin'.  

A short time after the trademark application, came the inevitable objections from rival manufacturers. Suzuki, Kawasaki, Honda, and Yamaha Motor Co all argued “numerous other cruiser-style motorcycle brands used a single-crankpin V-twin engine that produced a similar sound.” Six years, and $$$ of litigation later, Harley Davidson dropped their soundmark application.

In conclusion, trademarking a sonic logo can be difficult, but not impossible. If the sound has a musical element, it may be easier to trademark, but copyright protection is still sufficient for most cases.

UK trademarks are submitted (and approved by) The IPO. More info from here

Toby Jarvis is founder and creative director at A-MNEMONIC | Music & Audio Branding

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A-MNEMONIC | Music & Audio, Wed, 31 May 2023 14:03:17 GMT