Photo by Roberto Machado via Getty Images

The General Mills brand's attempt to patent yellow failed in court 

Tim Nelson
February 07, 2018

The tech world is rife with patent trolls trying to win a payout through frivolous lawsuits. But lest you think farcical patent trails were the sole province of Silicon Valley, cereal maker General Mills deserves credit for trying (and failing) to trademark a primary color.

Last week, the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board shut down General Mills’ second request to trademark “the color yellow appearing as the predominant uniform background color” for Cheerios, a “toroidal-shaped, oat-based breakfast cereal.” Strip away the legalese, and this essentially amounts to Cheerios trying to claim yellow as its sole intellectual property in the breakfast world. 

Because a presiding judge is probably required to defend their decision with more than just a “lol, no,” Anthony R. Masiello stated that too many other cereal boxes over the years have used yellow (a bright, happy color said to stimulate serotonin production) for it to be ubiquitous with the Cheerios brand. The judge cited “the industry practice of ornamenting breakfast cereal boxes with bright colors, bold graphic designs, and prominent word marks” as evidence that Cheerios’ use of yellow isn’t enough to stand out from the crowd. The fact that the bright orange hue of Honey Nut Cheerios is almost if not more synonymous with the broader Cheerios brand also worked against General Mills in the case. 

As patently absurd as this all sounds, some food and drink brands have won trademarks over colors. Cadbury claims ownership of royal purple, Moët Hennessey has patented Veuve Cliquot’s distinct orange-yellow Pantone, and the Coca Cola Company controls their signature beverage’s distinct shade of red. 

So why did General Mills feel the need to plead its case for yellow ownership before trademark courts not once, but twice? Brand media relations manager Mike Siemienas cited a desire “to protect the iconic yellow color for our Cheerios box.” That’s certainly something to ponder next time you reach for a box of Corn Pops, Trader Joe’s Joe O’s, Golden Grahams, or any other cereal whose packaging reflects light waves between 570 and 590 nanometers in length. 

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