Can you copyright a colour?

ColourJust for a change, let’s explore copyright rather than copywriting.

Last night, I met the owner of a small business who’d been sued by Getty Images for thousands of pounds.

She had recently taken over the business from the previous owner. He’d innocently grabbed a picture from Google images and used it on the company website.

She managed to win the argument by immediately taking down the photo and proving it wasn’t her that had used it. Unusually, Getty backed down.

Many people think it’s OK to search the internet and help themselves to whatever images they find there. They are wrong.

Every Google image search result shows this disclaimer in small print:

Images may be subject to copyright.

You might think the risk of being caught is small. But every image includes hidden code to help litigious lawyers find everywhere it has been posted – and then go after anyone who’s used it illegally.

The business-owner I met last night is not the first I’ve spoken to who has suffered the wrath of the mighty Getty. She is, however, the first person I know who has got away with it. The others have had to fork out hundreds of pounds. Yes. Even when they’ve immediately apologised, declared their innocence, and taken the offending pictures down straightaway.

Colour blind

But it’s not just images that are copyrighted. Believe it or not, you could even get sued for using someone else’s colour.

It varies across cultures, but in colour psychology:

  • Red = love, lust, excitement
  • Yellow = happiness
  • Orange = creativity
  • Green = envy, environmentally friendly
  • Blue = masculine, stability
  • Pink = feminine
  • Purple = royalty, power
  • Brown = rugged, natural
  • Black = grief, expensive
  • White = purity, clarity

Brands tap into these unconscious associations. For example, cleaning products tend to be green or blue, while the food sector often uses red and yellow.

It works. To prove it, what colours do you think of when you consider these brands?

  • Harrods
  • easyJet
  • Virgin
  • Coca-Cola
  • Orange (!)

These businesses have invested a lot in their brand identity to build the associations they want. Under the 1994 Trademarks Act, companies that can prove their colour is distinctive in relation to selected goods and services can register it for use in that sector – and then sue you if you use their colour yourself:

For more on colour psychology, please see Wikipedia.

For more on colour and branding, you might enjoy this article on Campaign.

Face the music

Increasingly, business-people make their own videos on their smartphone. The technology allows us to add music from iTunes with one click/tap, then upload to Facebook or YouTube or Vimeo with one click/tap – and that’s where people can run into trouble.

The algorithms behind these sites monitor the soundwaves that are uploaded, and if they find a match, you could find yourself guilty of copyright infringement and risk losing your account.

Don’t take the chance – use copyright-free material or create your own.

Disclaimer: Please note I’m not a copyright lawyer. I’m a copywriter. Despite the potential confusion, this is not the same thing at all.

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