Sounds can be registered as trademarks in the United States. For example, the familiar three-tone chime of the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) has been registered. Other well-known sound trademarks include the lion’s roar of MGM, the Harlem Globetrotter’s theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and the spoken words AT&T accompanied by music.
However, not all companies are successful in securing sounds. In 1994, Harley-Davidson Inc. tried to file as a registered trademark the exhaust sound of its motorcycle engine. Several competitors opposed the move. Years later, Harley withdrew the application.
Internationally, there is no consensus on whether a sound can be protected as a trademark. In one case in November of 2003, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that the musical sounds of Beethoven’s piano composition For Elisa could be registered as a trademark but “cock-a-doodle-doo” could not. Both sounds had been used in the advertising of a Dutch business.
The Luxembourg court said a sound can be a trademark if it is distinctive and can be represented graphically, especially by figures, lines or characters. For Elisa met that standard but the sound of a crowing cock (“Cock-a-doodle-doo” or “Kukelekuuuuu” in Dutch) did not.
Protecting sound trademarks can pose some unique challenges, according to a report by the International Trademark Association. Under most conventions and countries’ laws, “the definition of a trademark either encompasses sound as a trademark, or at the very least, does not exclude such marks.” However, the report noted, “only a very few countries have developed any standards or requirements for obtaining registration of sound trademarks.”