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Page last updated at 10:05 GMT, Tuesday, 30 September 2008 11:05 UK

Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?

The Magazine answers...

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Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat is one of the most instantly recognised logos in the financial sector. What will happen to it now the bank is being broken up?

Not only has Bradford and Bingley laid claim to the bowler hat - headgear of choice of quintessential City gent, silent comedy acts and hot young starlets - it also owns the trademark on 100 variations on this theme.

It has registered the gesture of raising and lowering bowler hats (trademark number UK2130164), stacked silhouettes of rainbow-coloured bowler hats (UK2184803), and the image of the hats blowing away in the wind (UK2168259).

Now Spanish bank Santander has taken over its savings accounts and branches, and the government has temporary control of its mortgages and loans, which side will own these trademarks?

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Up to new owner to decide if the bowler hat symbol will endure

Not surprisingly, it's hardly the first item on the agenda for those involved in carving up the bank. Maggie Ramage, Bradford and Bingley's trademark attorney, says as yet she has "no idea. That will be up to the new owners."

"The bowler hat is used for general products, mortgages and investments, so it covers both sides of the business," says Ms Ramage, of Alexander Ramage Associates.

What it's now worth is not clear. "It's almost impossible to put a value on it because it's tied up so implicitly with the assets of the business. At some point an accountant will have to sit down and say what's it's worth."

But she expects a decision soon - a trademark is an asset of a business and is treated exactly like any other asset, such as a property portfolio.

While the perceived value of its branding will have taken a hit from the bank's troubles, it can recover, says Steve James, a partner at patent attorneys RGC Jenkins and Co.

"It would be a big decision to get rid of a symbol that's been around forever - and everyone knows the bowler hat."

Any business being split up must come to a custody agreement over names and logos, much like a divorcing couple negotiating childcare and property, he says.

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But in many cases, who owns a trademark is forgotten about until one side tries to resurrect it and the other takes exception to this.

"One part of the business may agree to use it and the other will come up with something else. Another alternative is that it is assigned to one side, which then licences it to the other."

The bowler hat is a treasured possession of Bradford and Bingley. Not only has it forked out to register the many and varied permutations on its trademark over the years, in 1995 it paid a reported 2,000 for Stan Laurel's bowler.

The same year, it forced Virgin to ditch a national ad campaign which it claimed poked fun at Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley, the dapper double act who fronted its TV ads for years.

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The duo were put out to pasture in 1999, but the bowler hat has remained a fixture on their younger, female replacements.

Trademarks exist because companies want to protect their own identity and stop rivals pretending to be them. To protect a symbol, phrase or gesture, a company must show that what they want to trademark is not too generic, and that the public recognise it as theirs.

While bowler hats in general are not protected as Bradford and Bingley's own, their use to promote financial services are - hence Virgin dropping its ad campaign depicting Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley knocked off their feet, their trademark bowlers tumbling in the wind.

More than a decade on, it is an all too apt image for the turmoil engulfing the financial sector.

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