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Single Letter Trademarks: a Challenge of Distinctiveness

by | Feb 6, 2024 | Intellectual Property, Trademark

Though it is far from a new issue, the emergence of the company X (formerly known as Twitter) has refocused the spotlight on single letter trademarks. X Corp, Elon Musk’s company, was sued by X Social Media in December 2023 for trademark infringement based on consumer confusion. 

Musk’s lawyers have voiced confidence that the court will view this infringement suit as opportunistic and not sincere, given the massive size of X Corp. However, you may be wondering for your own business: Is it worth trying to register a single letter as a mark?

Why Register Single Letter Trademarks?

The advantages of registering a single letter as a mark do not particularly stand out from registering any other kind of mark. The regular trademark benefits apply: prima facie ownership of a strongly branded symbol in your business’s commercial space, along with the ability to pursue infringement claims against anyone who tries to use your mark – or something similar to your mark.

Some would also argue that a single letter offers unique recognition and design opportunities. According to this viewpoint, consumers are more accustomed to seeing business names and logos that are words. Designers can create artistic renderings that highlight the stark singularity of one alphabet letter or single digit. Some letters have been elevated to this status with great success, like the Superman “S” or the Google “G.” It may be that X Corp wishes to do the same thing with its “X.”

In fact, this distinctive design may be very necessary for consumer recognition of a single letter mark, as you will see in the next section. 

Challenges of Single Letter Trademarks

As you may well know by perusing our IP blog for even a short amount of time: Distinctiveness is essential for trademarks. The USPTO’s rules on registering trademarks address this from different angles. 

Your trademark cannot describe the essence of your good or service. For instance, an apple orchard cannot register a trademark for the phrase “apple orchard.” Such a trademark would monopolize a word that other apple orchards need to use simply to conduct business. 

In a similar vein, if your brand’s mark becomes synonymous with the basic good or service – the classic example is “Kleenex” – your trademark registration can be canceled. As you can deduce, your trademark must achieve a symbolic quality for your business, something more than literally describing what your business does.

Numbers and alphabet letters are inherently symbols, so they do not risk merely describing your goods or services. However, the real battle will be to achieve the distinctiveness that allows consumers to see the letter “A” and think of your business and your business alone. The letter “A” already carries so much meaning, even outside of commerce. How will you achieve that?

Even if you were to successfully gain registration approval, you will find many other letter trademarks in other classes. The competition for recognition is much stiffer among the thousands of trademarks for the letter “M” than the handful of trademarks for a business name like “Marks Gray.”

To Register a B or Not to Register a B?

This is why IP attorneys may advise going with something other than a single letter or digit – or investing in the design and brand work necessary to truly make that mark “pop” amid all the ABCs and 123s of the world. 

In the end, you may find that it is simply not worth the money to achieve that brand recognition. Your time and money may be better spent developing a more fanciful and original trademark – one that will both gain easier application approval and shine in the marketplace.


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