MIT Media Lab recently announced an awesome new logo, which consists of three colored searchlights that can be altered to create 40,000 different shapes, with 12 different color combinations. Each version of the logo looks different depending on the color of the lights and the manner in which they are situated and angled:
No two logos are alike . . . once each member of the Media Lab creates their own logo, that logo is locked to prevent anyone else from using it, which ensures that each Lab member has their own unique logo. The Lab also put the logo into action on the About page on its website.
As cool as it is (did I even need to mention how super cool it is?), MIT’s new logo raises two concerns from an IP legal standpoint: (a) it’s so cool, it probably will be knocked off, and its copyright probably will be infringed; and (b) MIT may not be able to protect the logo as a trademark because the PTO may refuse registration under the “Phantom Mark” doctrine.
If this algorithm can be reverse-engineered, then I will bet that hackers and would-be-infringers already are working on it. Even more problematic are folks who figure out how to create a similar logo function without infringing on (copying) MIT’s. Copyright infringement requires both access to the work (in this case the algorithm) and copying thereof. If someone else writes a unique algorithm that functions similarly without accessing MIT’s, well that’s fair game and MIT won’t be able to prevent it unless they have Jedi mind tricks up their sleeves (I don’t put it past them).
On the trademark side, MIT may face a phantom mark refusal if it tries to register this mark with the USPTO. Phantom marks are those that have a component in them that is subject to change. In this case what makes the logo so cool also may make it un-protectable as a trademark.
Perhaps MIT just isn’t that concerned. After all, of the 50 LIVE PTO records in MIT’s name, none are for the MIT Media Lab (though they do have a registration for NERD PRIDE). Maybe that’s because the MIT Labbers are so smart they’ve already designed their way out of any possible trademark infringement matters. Then again, maybe not.
When designing a new logo it is important to consider enforcement issues — ideally you want a mark that will be easy to protect and enforce. While MIT Media Lab’s new logo is cutting edge and wonderfully innovative, its enforceability remains to be seen. Hopefully it won’t be an issue.