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section heading icon     Sounds and smells

This page considers sounds and smells as trademarks.

It covers -


Brand owners have increasingly sought to register sounds, smells and colours as trademarks.

The essential challenge is the task of proving that the particular sound or scent is unique and is closely associated with the brand. Another challenge, arguably less difficult, is the registration of the mark, with for example disagreement in academic and industry circles about how to record a smell and thence to deal with questions of infringement.

It is important to note that a particular aural, olfactory or colour mark does not cover all possible uses. A trademark might thus be issued for use of a specific smell or sound in relation to a particular product - protected under a discrete trademark class - rather than for every use of that scent/sound.


Sound marks emerged in the 1950s but registration really 'took off' from the 1970s, driven in large part by emulation and by increasing use of digital technologies.

Much registration has been 'backward', with corporate owners seeking sound trade mark protection for sounds - such as the roar of the MGM lion or 20th Century Fox therme - in use over the preceding 50 years.

Examples include -

  • US broadcaster NBC - sound of the chime used to identify a station break (1971, US Reg. No 0916552)
  • Time Warner - "Merrie Melodies Theme" (2001, US Reg. No 2,473,248)
  • New York Stock Exchange - sound of its closing bell ("a brass bell tuned to the pitch D... struck nine times at a brisk tempo")
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- the "famous Tarzan yell" (US Reg. No 2,210,506)
  • American Airlines - 'ding' flight attendant tone
  • Deutsche Telekom - "five note musical score" (US Reg. No 2,459,405; New Zealand Reg. No 649629)
  • Harlem Globetrotters - basketball team's 'Sweet Georgia Brown' theme (US Reg No 7,4219,263)
  • AT&T - spoken letters AT&T with a distinctive musical flourish in background
  • Intel - 'five-tone' sound registered in US, Australia and New Zealand
  • MGM - MGM Lion roar (US Reg No 7,3555,319)
  • Twentieth Century Fox - drumroll (US Reg No 7,4639,776)
  • Time Warner - Looney Tunes Theme Song (US Reg No 7,6051,811)
  • Pillsbury - sound of Pillsbury Doughboy's giggle (US Reg No )
  • RKO Pictures - image and sound regarding 'RKO tower' transmitting Morse-code like signal
  • Nokia - default ringtone (US Reg No 3,288,274).

In Australia there had been 59 applications for registration of an aural mark as of June 2006, with 25 (including the 'Dolmio waltz' for pasta sauce and the spoken words "Ah McCain" followed by a 'ping') being successful.

Critics have argued that aural marks are problematic.

One argument is simply that it is inappropriate to trademark a sound.

Another centres on the perceived difficulty of adequately describing a sound mark. Some registers seek a notation of musical notes, tones and words (the "famous Tarzan yell" is for example identified through traditional musical notation of the notes and pitches"). Other registries allow an 'image' of the mark, ie inclusion of a sound recording.

Applications to register some sounds have proved to be contentious, whether because of questions about distinctiveness and close association (the criteria discussed earlier in this profile) or because of perceived reach.

Motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson, for example, sought a US trademark for the noise of its "45 degree V-twin single crankpin motor". A Honda spokesperson commented that "It's very difficult to imagine a world where the sound of a running engine is an exclusive property right", particularly in a world where many noises sound the same. Harley eventually abandoned the application.

Introductions to the literature are provided by Kevin McCormick's 2006 '"Ding" You Are Now Free to Register that Sound' in 96 The Trademark Reporter 1101, Michael Sapherstein's 1998 'The Trademark Registrability of the Harley-Davidson Roar: A Multimedia Analysis' in 1998 Intellectual Property & Technology Forum.


In the US scents may be trademarked if they do not serve a functional purpose. In 1990 for example a court held that a Californian company could register a plumeria scent as a trademark for its sewing thread and embroidery yarn (US Reg. No 1,639,128, subsequently abandoned).

Personal fragrances (eg the scent of a perfume) are considered functional - without separation of the product and the mark - and thus cannot be registered.

Practice in Europe has varied. L'Oreal successfully claimed trademark infringement in France regarding the smell of one of its perfumes in a dispute with a manufacturer of 'small-alikes'. That decision was reversed by a superior court.

A trademark in the smell of perfume has however reportedly been accepted by courts in the Netherlands (in Lancôme Parfums et Beauté et Cie v Kecofa, 2004).

The UK trademark register and UK courts have not accepted perfume scent trademarks, as distinct from trademark protection for the name and packaging of the perfume.

An application by Chanel for a Chanel No 5 olfactory mark - described as

a scent of aldehydic-floral fragrance product, with an aldehydic top note from aldehydes, bergamont, lemon and neroli; an elegant floral middle note, from jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, orris and ylang-ylang; and a sensual feminine note from sandal, cedar, vanilla, amber, civet and musk.

was thus unsuccessful. The UK has however approvided olfactory marks: the first successful application was by Sumitomo Rubber for "a floral fragrance/smell reminiscent of roses as applied to tyres".

Other examples include the -

  • 'strong smell of bitter beer' applied to flights for darts
  • 'smell, aroma or essence of cinnamon' for furniture and parts and fittings
  • 'smell of fresh cut grass' for tennis balls.

One might ask whether smell trade marks are more intriguing than practical. Do you sniff your tyres for the scent of crushed American Beauty rose petals, rather than relying on a logo on the outside of the rubber?

As with sounds there has been disagreement about description of smells in trademark registers ('elegant top note', 'sensual feminine note' etc). We are thus likely to see increasing emphasis on mechanisms for identification such as gas chromatography, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and mass spectrometry (MS).

Among the literature see Helen Burton's 1995 'The UK Trade Marks Act 1994: An Invitation to an Olfactory Occasion?”' in EIPR, Benson, Christopher Benson's 2001 'Can a smell be registered as a trade mark?' in IHL and Peter Turner-Kerr's 2001 'Trade Marks: Application to the OHIM for registration of an olfactory mark – Case Comment' in EIPR.

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version of September 2007
© Bruce Arnold
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