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I often see color combinations on webpages, images, posters, products etc. that harmonize really well. Am I allowed to use those colors in my own design?

This is solely about the colors. I will not use images, logos or shapes from that source, and my content is not related to the original color source. I am also far from any commercial aspect here.

  • I dont think you can copyright colors per see just like you can not copyright math either, – joojaa Dec 9 '14 at 11:39
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    That may be true for single colors. Nobody can prevent me from using black (#000000) in my graphics. However, there is one case in Germany, where Deutsche Telekom AG is successfully trying to protect their magenta (#E20074). I can imagine that certain color combinations can also be patented. – Aziraphale Dec 9 '14 at 12:09
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    Yves Klein famously registered a patent in France for a particular shade of blue: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Klein_Blue – BenjaminGolder Dec 9 '14 at 18:48
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    @BenjaminGolder yes but its a pigment, not a screen color. One can patent chemical compounds, so its clear that you can patent a pigment as its a chemical compound. Patents and trademarks and copyrights are different beasts. Patents being the sanest of them all from inventors and investors perspective, tough still far from optimal. Anyway the Klein patent is expired, which is weaker than copyright. – joojaa Dec 9 '14 at 18:52
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    Are you sure aou are not mixing copyright, trademark, patents, and similar legel institutes here? – Hagen von Eitzen Dec 9 '14 at 19:03
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A color or a set of colors can be trademarked under some legal systems, as long as it's "used to perform the trademark function of uniquely identifying the commercial origin of products or services", to quote Wikipedia. For instance the characteristic purple shade of Milka chocolate packages is trademarked in Europe.

Even if not trademarked, it can be argued that coming up with a substantially distinctive set of colors is a creative process and therefore constitutes a piece of work protected by intellectual property rights. Whether this argument would hold in court depends on the case and the court, obviously.

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    Trademarked colors dont mean that you can not use that color, you can just not use that color in the same marketing segment. So if you want to use Milka colors in your photography installation go ahead. – joojaa Dec 9 '14 at 16:16
  • @joojaa Different market segment doesn't mean Kraft Foods can't still sue you, should their lawyers decide the extent to which you used "their" color is misleading the audience as to the affiliation of your photo installation with Milka. – lafor Dec 9 '14 at 23:48
  • thats a bad counter, they can sue me regardless of what i do. Fortunately i live in a place where looser pays the bills – joojaa Dec 10 '14 at 5:25
  • Just wanted to add this nice (popular, non-theoretic) read: businessinsider.com/… – sebilasse Feb 18 '15 at 10:32
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The concept of Trade Dress likely applies here.

In the US, you can protect a set of colors as part of trade dress. If you use a particular set of colors that someone else is using, you could be accused of interfering with their trade dress if there is some belief your intent is to confuse the consumer.

The intent is to prohibit less-than-ethical company B trying to confuse customers by making packaging that looks a lot like legitimate company A's product.

In reality, just using colors likely won't be enough to infringe on trade dress in most situations. The exceptions would be brands that have heavily leveraged a particular color as the primary branding asset. If you started a cosmetics company where your sales team drove around in pink cars, Mary Kay might want to have a word with you.

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    You might want to clarify that if you did the same pink cars thing in construction equipment business you would most likely be safe. – joojaa Dec 9 '14 at 18:00
  • @joojaa really late to this reply, but ironically, you likely aren't safe there due to Owens Corning "ownership" of pink insulation. :) – DA01 Feb 9 '16 at 20:28
  • weird but that still somehow validates the asseriton while similtaneously nullifying it ;/ – joojaa Feb 9 '16 at 20:37
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No, color palettes cannot be copyrighted in general terms. But there are some specific situations where this isn't the case:

  • One can copyright the arrangement of specific colors in a particular configuration (meaning the exact or near-exact positioning and arrangement of the colors), such as ColourLovers' copyright system for their palettes. This is essentially the same as copyrighting a finished work.

  • A business can copyright colors and color combinations for their brand but only for similar products when using a non-functional color[1] (an example of a functional color is green for lawn products) if the public strongly associates the color with the brand. One example is as follows:

Owens-Corning launched the "Think Pink" campaign for its fiberglass building insulation. In 1985, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that the company had the right to prevent others from using pink for insulation.

Pink insulation is a good example of a color that is protected by trademark. When consumers see pink insulation products, they know it's Owens-Corning. The color pink doesn't symbolize anything in home construction. In fact, it's not even a very masculine color.

Pulled from this Color Matters article which has more information about the subject.

In essence, law tries to prevent products/companies from confusing users that it is the same as other products/companies when the color(s) is not related to the usage of the product.

But in some cases businesses fail to get their colors trademarked, it depends on what the government decides on a case by case basis.

For more information about color trademarks, the Wikipedia article on the subject is not a bad reference.

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