Landmark Buildings as Intellectual Property

By Palak V. Patel


The Willis Tower, Chrysler Building, and the Hollywood Sign are all some of the most famous landmarks in the United States. In addition to their status as one of the most visited sights in the world, they have another detail in common. These famous sights are also trademarked.

Trademarks are indicators, through design, words, or symbols, of the source of goods or services. Specifically, a symbol can be trademarked when it serves to identify the source of goods or services for consumers.

Traditionally, trademark lawsuits involving building designs deal with potential infringers creating similar building designs. However, landmark owners have gone as far as extending trademark protection to building designs being depicted on merchandise. The owners of these famous sights have argued that trademark protection is necessary because depictions of landmarks will cause confusion as to the source.

As a result, the owners of these landmarks have often aggressively protected their marks. For example, the New York Stock Exchange sued the New York-New York Hotel and Casino of Las Vegas for building a scale model of the exchange’s facade on the gambling floor. The owners of the Chrysler Building famously attempted to block Fishs Eddy, a small china retailer, from selling plates with a depiction of the landmark.

While landmark owners may feel entitled to trademark protection, they have faced a lot of pushback from the public. Retailers and designers have argued that people do not look at pictures of landmarks and associate them with the owners of the mark. The opposition does make a fair point. After all, a consumer is unlikely to confuse the source of Fishs Eddy’s tableware depicting the Chrysler building with Tishman Speyer Properties, the commercial real estate company that owns the Chrysler Building.

In recent rulings, Courts have been reluctant to afford such strong trademark protection to Landmarks. In Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum V. Gentile Productions, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame filed suit against a retailer for selling posters depicting the building. The Sixth Circuit held that the poster did not infringe on the Museum’s trademark. The Court reasoned that the poster’s depiction of the Museum’s design was not an indicator of origin or sponsorship; rather, the poster was simply a photograph of a well-known and accessible public landmark.

Furthermore, Courts have held that trademark law does not protect landmarks when their image is used as part of a skyline. Skylines avoid trademark infringement since they are less likely to give rise to confusion as to its source.