ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Hey, Ailsa, I want to try a thought exercise with you, OK?
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
SHAPIRO: When I say the word magenta, what's the first thing that pops into your head?
CHANG: A Crayola crayon.
SHAPIRO: OK. Well, the wireless carrier T-Mobile is claiming in a new lawsuit that the color magenta is so inextricably linked to its brand that other companies...
SHAPIRO: ...Should be barred from using it. As Darius Rafieyan reports, that is not sitting well with some people.
DARIUS RAFIEYAN, BYLINE: Daniel Schreiber, the CEO of a small insurance company called Lemonade, was surprised earlier this summer when he received a strongly worded letter from lawyers at one of the world's biggest telecom companies.
DANIEL SCHREIBER: At some level, I knew it wasn't a joke. But it sure sounded like one.
RAFIEYAN: The letter was from Deutsche Telekom, the parent company of T-Mobile, and it accused Lemonade of stealing its trademark. But the thing that was odd about this dispute - it wasn't over the name T-Mobile or even its logo or tagline. It was over a color - in this case, Pantone Rhodamine Red U, also known as magenta.
SCHREIBER: But when you're talking about one of the three ink cartridges in every printer in the world, the color magenta (laughter), which the idea that one company can trademark and own it just defied belief, and I was in a state of disbelief.
RAFIEYAN: Now, Lemonade does use a lot of magenta in its branding, though Schreiber insists it's actually pink. And T-Mobile was saying, hey, back off our color. This isn't T-Mobile's first color-based lawsuit. In 2014, the company sued rival AT&T for using a shade of plum that was suspiciously similar to magenta. And over the years, T-Mobile has gone after a lot of other companies, including a British IT firm and a now-defunct smartwatch maker.
The company told NPR that it has a lot of businesses that go beyond just wireless service, and they feel it's important that there's no confusion when customers see the color magenta. And it's true that T-Mobile has really leaned into its association with the color. Aside from being splashed across all of its branding, the CEO, John Legere, never goes out in public without a magenta T-shirt and his custom-made magenta sneakers. He even dyed his hair magenta earlier this year.
But all of this got me wondering - can a company really claim ownership over a color? According to Robert Zelnick, a trademark attorney at McDermott, Will & Emery, it can.
(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY MANCINI'S "THE PINK PANTHER THEME")
RAFIEYAN: It all goes back to Owens Corning, a company that makes pink fiberglass insulation for houses.
ROBERT ZELNICK: And they claimed rights to the color pink for fiberglass insulation. And some people will remember the think pink campaign and "The Pink Panther" and lots of other tie-ins for that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Observe Exhibit A - the pink attic blanket insulation from Owens Corning, their most..
RAFIEYAN: Zelnick says the company was able to prove that the brand was linked to the color pink in people's minds, and that opened the floodgates. Many companies have since gone to court to protect their distinctive hues, think Tiffany blue or Cadbury purple. But will courts allow T-Mobile to keep magenta? Daniel Schreiber, the CEO of Lemonade, says he's determined to make sure that doesn't happen.
Darius Rafieyan, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF YELLE'S "TU ES BEAU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.