How Close Can a Logo Be & Not Be a Copyright Infringement?

By Tom Streissguth

Federal copyright law protects original works of art and design used commercially, such as logos. If the copyright is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, anyone who violates the copyright by using it without permission can be subject to a lawsuit, as well as fines and damages. There are several conditions that determine whether a new but similar design violates a copyrighted logo.

Federal copyright law protects original works of art and design used commercially, such as logos. If the copyright is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, anyone who violates the copyright by using it without permission can be subject to a lawsuit, as well as fines and damages. There are several conditions that determine whether a new but similar design violates a copyrighted logo.

Logos and Copyright

Logos are designs that identify a brand, a company or a product to the public. A company or an individual can register a logo with the U.S. Copyright Office and protect it from use by someone else. A name alone can't be copyrighted, nor can a word, phrase or idea. Copyright law requires that the logo to show "authorship," meaning original elements that indicate a minimal level of creativity on the part of the designer. A trademark can also protect your logo.

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Public Domain Elements

If you create a logo that is similar to another design, you may be violating the owner's copyright. If another individual or business has registered the copyright and brings a lawsuit, a judge would base his decision on "substantial similarity" and the "observer test." These are standards, used by many courts in copyright cases, determine whether an ordinary observer would overlook any minor differences between the works and regard them as the same. Using elements of the original logo that are unoriginal or not able to be copyrighted -- such as letters, numbers, names, words, typefaces, or familiar shapes like crosses, shields, and pyramids -- would not, by itself, represent a violation of copyright.

Authorship and Logos

If you copy an original arrangement of public domain elements, you might also be crossing the copyright-violation line. The court can determine that the arrangement is unique and displays "authorship" by the original designer. Simply replacing the text in a copyrighted design with words or abbreviations of your own -- and duplicating the designed elements and colors -- also represents a violation of copyright. Professional sports teams, fast-food chains and coffee shop franchises have all brought suit to protect their logos from would-be copiers who use the designs to promote their own products.

Judgments and Damages

Federal law provides for statutory damages up to $150,000 for each infringement of a copyright. A copyright violation does not necessarily mean an award to the plaintiff at the end of a lawsuit, however. If the violator can show that he has not profited from the copying, or that he did not willfully violate copyright, then the court won't award statutory damages. However, the court can enforce copyright law with a protective order, impound business records and any materials that use the logo, as well as award actual damages that the plaintiff can prove he suffered through the violation.

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How to Copyright a Logo on Shirts

References

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Relationship Between Company Name and Trademark

The relationship between a company's name and trademark establishes the company as the exclusive source of a product or goods. When a company uses a specific name, including distinctive stylization or designs, to establish its market presence, the name or design is eligible for trademark protection. A trademark protects the company from other entities using its name or brand stylizations to profit or infringe upon its market share.

Extraterritorial Jurisdiction for Trademark and Copyright

Extraterritorial jurisdiction applies where a government has the right to exercise legal authority beyond its national boundaries. Trademarks and copyright are forms of intellectual property that protect brand names, logos and original artistic or literary works. United States law prohibits the unauthorized use of trademarks and copyright works within U.S. boundaries. However, if an overseas individual or business uses your trademark or infringes your copyright, the remedies available depend on whether or not the United States has a treaty with the country where the alleged infringement occurs.

How Are Copyright Laws Enforced?

A copyright for an original work of authorship gives the copyright owner a set of property rights. During the term of the copyright, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute copies of the work, prepare derivative works, and perform and display the work. A copyright owner also has the right to authorize others to use her work. Copyright laws prohibiting the unauthorized use of copyrighted works are enforced through civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

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