Nearly all of the most familiar symbols in the world belong solely to their respective companies, with the exception of one of the most well-known: the famous “Walking Fingers” symbol of the Yellow Pages. Surprisingly, neither the symbol nor the Yellow Pages name are protected by copyright or federal trademark registration.
AT&T, the creator of the most famous three-fingered version, never applied for a trademark, an oversight noted as one of the most remarkable in corporate branding history. Although the company did trademark a different version of the symbol, AT&T itself did not consider the three-fingers symbol to be proprietary, or solely owned, and allowed any company — even its competitors — to use it on its own telephone directories.
Today, almost every independent directory publisher uses some form of the famous symbol and all are free to create their own versions. Although some companies have developed their own unique, new symbols, most stay close to the original. Even BellSouth developed a new symbol and slogan — a light bulb, with the tagline “Get an idea” — but abandoned both after just two years, returning to the original “Walking Fingers” symbol. The symbol is deeply ingrained in the minds of American consumers and businesses, so iconic that no other symbol of Yellow Pages directories has yet to gain wide acceptance.
Where “the walk” began
A New England artist created the first “Walking Fingers” symbol for the New England Telephone Company in the early 1960s. Shortly thereafter, AT&T and the regional companies that made up the Bell System started printing the symbol on their telephone directories. The symbol became instantly recognizable, encouraging every American household to “let your fingers do the walking” through the Yellow Pages. Both the symbol and the slogan were seen for years by millions of people in national advertising campaigns, but AT&T never treated these as trademarks in any way.
As a result of the 1984 divestiture of AT&T, BellSouth was formed as a holding company for two of the 22 former Bell System companies. In 1985, BellSouth submitted an application for a concurrent use registration for the “Walking Fingers” symbol for classified telephone directories, which would have given the company exclusive use of the symbol in the nine states in which its subsidiaries did business.
In response, more than 20 entities filed a dozen different oppositions to BellSouth’s application. Although they filed on a number of grounds, chief among them was that the mark had become a generic designation for information directories. As evidence, they offered trade association data that showed that about 5,900 classified telephone directories published in 1988 and 1989 used the “Walking Fingers” symbol on the front cover, and another 300 used it somewhere in their directories. The evidence showed that independent telephone companies, independent publishers not affiliated with any phone company and even BellSouth’s subsidiaries themselves had been using the mark since the late 1970s with the geographical areas of the classifieds often overlapping.
With this evidence, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied BellSouth’s application for registration, agreeing that the mark had become a generic indicator of the Yellow Pages, regardless of the directory’s source.
In short, the board recognized that the symbol was not a trademark, but simply an informational symbol representing yellow pages. You can read more about this case at: Bell South trademark trial.
Why the Yellow Pages are yellow
Many of the things we view as icons today came about unintentionally. In 1883, a Wyoming printer ran out of white paper while printing a regular residential phone directory. He used yellow paper instead, unwittingly creating one of the most recognized phrases in American business.
Just three years later, the first official yellow pages directory was created, and today, the name “Yellow Pages” has become synonymous with “business directory.” It’s in the public domain as well and can be used by your local phone company, websites and other companies that offer the benefits of Yellow Pages advertising to businesses of all types and sizes.
Note: AT&T and Bellsouth are independent companies not owned or operated by United Directories dba Yellow Pages United.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Pages – wikipedia.org May 14th, 2012
“Bellsouth v. Datanational” – Ll.georgetown.edu. May 14th, 2012
“Bell System Memorial- Bell Logo History”– Porticus.org. May 14th 2012
Yellow Pages United is an independent online national directory publisher. Yellow Pages United is not affiliated with any other Yellow Pages company that might be mentioned in this article and is not affiliated with AT&T or your local directory publisher.