As part of its ongoing effort to tamp down intellectual property infringement overseas, Apple applied a few weeks ago for trademark protection for the visual appearance of its iPad, including the colors silver and black.
The important thing to notice here is that the protection applied for is under trademark. Not a design patent, mind you, but trademark.
Trademark rights exist in order to protect a consumer’s ability to identify the source of the product or service by its mark – most commonly a name or a logo. So while a particular name may be catchy, a logo may be elegant, etc., the real point of trademark rights is really to make a potential purchaser aware of where the thing originates.
Apple, by its Chinese applications for trademark protection, is looking for protection for its product designs, and not only its names and logos (the Apple name, the iPad name, and the Apple logo), but the product’s appearance as well.
Colors of products, and their shape and general appearance can also have trademark value if, over time, they can communicate to consumers the same kind of meaning as brand names and logos. This aspect of trademark law is referred to as “trade dress.”
A famous example of color used as a protectable trade dress under trademark law is Owens-Corning pink insulation. The color serves no function, and over time consumers came to recognize it as a brand identification.
Whether Apple can make its iPad design and the colors black and silver protectable under trademark law remains to be seen. Seems like the company is looking for all the weapons it can find in the war against copycats and knockoff products.