How Does the Copyright Protection of the 1982 Lanham Act Affect Signs?

The Lanham Act, also known as the Trademark Act, was originally passed in 1946. It has been revised several times since then, including 1982, when it was revised by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to prevent cities/municipalities from requiring businesses to alter federally registered trademarks. Section 1121(b) of the act states: “No state or other jurisdiction of the United States or any political subdivision or any agency thereof may require alteration[emphasis added] of a registered mark, or require that additional trademarks, service marks, trade names, or corporate names contemplated by the registered mark, as exhibited in the certificate of registration issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.” 

This means that sign codes can’t constitutionally prevent copyrighted colors, logos, fonts, etc.,from being used on a sign. Perhaps the most significant court cases involved  Blockbuster and Video Update signs in notoriously strict Tempe, AZ . The city wasn’t allowed to force Blockbuster to change the blue color of its federally registered trademark to pink and white. Similarly, Video Update’s federally registered red color couldn’t be forced to adhere to shopping center’s mandate of white letters on a turquoise background. Blockbuster’s trademark also specifies a blue awning. 

However, caution must be exercised because the Lanham Act doesn't apply to landlords who might want to prohibit copyrighted colors, shapes, etc. It only addresses governmental prohibitions. A full discussion of this aspect appeared in the November 1998 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.