Thursday, October 27, 2011

Can Scouting Group Claim Color Scheme?

Dear Rich: Frontier Girls is a scouting style program founded in 2007 for girls. It has come to my attention that the uniforms I use in Frontier Girls are the same color scheme as a single level of American Heritage Girls, another scouting style program founded 1995. American Heritage Girls has a total of five levels and at one level the uniform is navy bottoms, white shirts, and red vests. It is similar to Frontier Girls except American Heritage Girls also has a navy scarf with their uniform. The badges, awards, and layout of the vests are completely different as is the shape of the vest. [Compare them: American Heritage Girls Tenderheart (scroll down) vs. Frontier Girls.Their other four levels of uniforms look nothing like Frontier Girls. I have been told that I need to change my uniform, but do not feel that anyone should have the right to trademark the colors red, white and blue, as these stand for our country and any patriotic groups should have a right to use them. Are you being told to change your uniforms, solely on the basis of the color scheme, or are you being told to change on the basis of the overall appearance -- the colors, shape, and design (or what we call trade dress)? There's a difference, as we explain below. In general, the Dear Rich Staff thinks that American Heritage Girls has some challenges ahead if it drags you into court.
  • Claiming Color schemes as a trademark is tough.  In order for American Heritage Girls (AHG) to prove that Frontier Girls (FG) infringed solely on the basis of the color scheme, AHG would have to prove that their use preceded FG, that consumers of scouting-style services associate AHG with red, white and blue, that the colors are not functional, and that FG's color scheme is substantially similar to AHG such that consumers are confused when seeing a FG uniform and believe it is AHG. Proving these claims requires substantial evidence -- for example, consumer surveys and expert testimony. We think it will be hard for AHG to claim the color scheme as protectible.
  • Trade dress is also tough to protect. AHG may seek to stop FG based on their overall trade dress -- the total appearance of their uniforms (not just the colors). For example companies such as Re/Max and Bank of America go after red, white and blue competitors but usually only if the overall appearance of the signs or marks is similar (not simply the colors). AHG features at least five different uniforms in their program. So it may be a challenge for them to prove that consumers associate any one of the five as a specific source identifier. In addition, as you point out, AHG's blue "neckerchief" distinguishes the AHG uniform, somewhat, from the FG uniform. 
  • Bad publicity. It's possible that the potential headlines -- "Scouting Group Claims Exclusive Rights to Red, White and Blue" -- might dissuade AHG from seriously pursuing the claim.
  • Dilution, anyone? In addition to claiming infringement, AHG can make a dilution claim regarding the colors if it can prove that red, white and blue comprise a famous mark for AHG and that the colors are not functional. We think that's a tough claim to make as well.
For your FYI Dept. AHG has not registered their trade dress or color scheme. They have only registered their name (claimed for "Educational services, namely, conducting workshops, courses of instruction and day and overnight retreats for girls and young women that support traditional values of God, family and country to promote leadership, social, physical and intellectual development.") And they've been using that mark since 1985. That makes them trademark newbies when compared to the Boy Scouts.