Monday, 10 September 2018

Icy Refusal to Copyright Frigidaire’s Logo

 The Review Board of the United States Copyright Office (the Board) did not warm up to Electrolux’s arguments that its “Frigidaire Stylized Logo” should be protected by copyright. On August 29, it affirmed the denial of registration.

A logo can be protected as a trademark and can also be protected by copyright, if it is original enough. Several corporate logos are protected by copyright and by trademark.

The Frigidaire logo consists of the word Frigidaire in blue capital letters. Only the “A” differs from the usual way to write the letter A, as it is drawn as a triangle filled with a smaller red triangle. Hardly the stuff Turner Prize dreams are made of.

But copyright laws are not snobbish and protect masterpieces and more humble works alike, as long as they are original enough.  

Is the word Frigidaire itself protected by copyright?

Frigidaire is a made-up word. The correct word to designate an electric ice box is a refrigerator. I may sound a little pompous writing this phrase, but it is because I am scolding my 15-year old self [make this my 20-year old self] who was stupefied discovering this fact. Of course, being French, I grew up calling the family refrigerator “Le Frigo.” But enough about moi.

Who remembers the copywriter who invented such a famous name. Anybody? We should, as Frigidaire quickly became part of the lexicon. I found a scientific 1932 article using it. Google Ngram’s viewer informs us that the word appeared in 1920, peaked in 1940, and then dropped steadily in use in English, in use in English fiction, in French, and Spanish, while the word was at its most popular in Italian in the Sixties.

It is a great word, an original word, more original that a logo using a triangle instead of the letter “A.” But my brain must have frozen, as I just remembered that a word cannot be protected by copyright, and I have thus let go the suggestion that the word Frigidaire should be protected by copyright..

Let’s talk a bit about trademark.

Frigidaire is a great word. It could even be some person’s favorite word. Poets and songwriters have used it.

When Nat King Cole sang “I have stopped my heart like an icy Frigidaire, for I need to care for no one, that's why I'm thru with love…” he (exquisitely) did what every trademark attorney dreads the most, he used a trademark as a generic term.

[Trivia question: which other famous song from the American song book used the then-trademark “cellophane” generically, as a compliment to a paramour to boot? Answer is here].

Frigidaire is such a great name for a refrigerator that it quickly got used for a refrigerator, instead of the generic name, thus becoming a generic trademark. It is now used indifferently, Frigidaire or refrigerator.  

“Frigidaire” was registered as a word trademark in 1920 by registrant Frigidaire Corporation of Michigan. This trademark is now dead, by genericide.

As Frigidaire can no longer be protected as a word mark, it can only be protected as a design mark. Indeed, the word Frigidaire in stylized letters in still protected by trademark, in several versions, also here.

Frigidaire, written FRIGIDΔIRE, was registered as a trademark last year. The mark “consists of "FRIGIDAIRE" with triangle "A". This logo can be a trademark, since what matters is that the logo can serve as an indicator of the origins of the goods. Trademark laws do not care about originality.

But copyright laws do, and this FRIGIDΔIRE logo is not original enough, according to the Board, to be protected by copyright.

The FrigidΔire logo is not original enough to be protected by copyright.

The Board reminded applicant that it does not make aesthetic judgments when assessing whether a work can be protected or not, citing the classic 1903 Bleistein case. But it is lack of originality which froze the application, not aesthetics.

The Board used many of the same arguments they used to deny copyright protection to Log Cabin Blank With Screw Eyes and Cafe Door. To resume the argument, Feist requires only a modicum of originality but the work must “embody some creative authorship.” The author can use material and forms which are not protected by copyright, but must do it in such a way that the selection and coordination of these elements “trigger[s] copyright.” As in the Log Cabin case, the board cited § 906 of the Compendium and the Atari case to assert that the combination of simple shapes is protected only if “combined in a distinctive manner indicating some ingenuity.” The Board found that the stylized “A” is a mere “trivial variation on a letter” and is thus not copyrightable, as it does not “possess more than a de minimis quantum of creativity”, quoting Feist.

Electrolux, which now owns the Frigidaire brand, has registered the logo at stake as a trademark, and also wanted to register it as a copyright. This is good practice, as intellectual property is valuable and it makes sense to protect it every way one can.

It argued that “the stylized letter “A” represent[ed] a design choice that was made to reflect the attributes of Electrolux home appliance products, including having an eye on the future and being innovative, grounded, and stylish.”

However, logos cannot be protected by copyright if they are not original enough, and the FrigidΔire case should serve as a warning to companies creating a logo: make sure it is original enough to be also protected by copyright.

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