The basic purpose of a trademark is that it serves to distinguish the goods or services of one person from those of another. If a mark is not distinctive, it would lead to confusion among consumers between the mark and existing brands present in the market, as well as be unable to distinguish the source/origin of the goods/services. Distinctiveness is an elementary feature of a trademark, and lack of distinctiveness would be a ground for refusal of the trademark. With that in mind, let us consider how the Indian Trade Marks Registry deals with issues of distinctiveness with regard to alphabet or number trademarks.

Marks consisting of a single letter or two letters are generally regarded as being “devoid of distinctive character” for goods because of the tendency in trade to use letters as models or catalogue references. Further these marks may also be used as abbreviation of names. Two letter marks are usually acceptable in respect of services having regard to the trade practice.

While the Indian Trade Marks Registry ordinarily does not permit single letter word marks, there are an array of single letter device marks owing to the fact that when the mark is seen as a whole, it would create a distinct impression in the minds of consumers of average intelligence and/or imperfect recollection. Examples include Wildcraft’s “” and Netflix’s “” marks.

There also exist marks in the Register of Trade Marks, which have been granted registration with a condition that the proprietor has no right to the exclusive use of the letter(s) on their own. This is, of course, implied with every trademark owing to the well-established principle of trademark to be seen as a whole, but it is relevant to note that this extra measure has been taken to ensure that trademarks and the rights conferred thereunder are not abused.

With regard to numbers, single numbers which involve little or no stylization will often face an objection because many such numbers are used in trade to designate a quantity, quality or characteristic of many goods, which would render the mark descriptive and qualify as an absolute ground for refusal of the trademark.

However, it is pertinent to note that although single numbers are generally not permitted, there are exceptions including trademarks such as “9” applied for as late as 2018 and granted registration in 2020. This could be attributed to the fact that the trademark in question has no relation to the goods offered thereunder and is arbitrary in nature. Further, alphanumeric marks such as “F1” “G3” and “S7” have been allowed too.

Upon a perusal of the majority of the existing single letter and numeral trademarks, one can see that they were applied for in earlier decades. The threshold of stringency with which marks are granted registration has increased greatly since the advent of the Trade Marks Rules, 2017. Therefore, it can be concluded that single alphabet/number trademarks, although not commonly allowed, may not be disallowed unless they are descriptive and completely devoid of distinctive character in nature.

As in most IP matters, there is no straitjacket rule to be applied in the case of such marks. Distinctiveness is a question of fact which is to be determined on a case-to-case basis. If the trademark is arbitrary, it would bear no relation to the goods or services offered under the mark and therefore would be inherently distinctive and consequently, high up on the spectrum of distinctiveness of trademarks. Alternatively, it is possible for some marks of this nature to be deemed distinctive owing to extensive use and acquired distinctiveness as a result of such use. In such cases, single alphabet/number trademarks could be allowed, subject to the discretion of the Trade Marks Registry.

This article has been authored by Shana Varughese.