Difference Between a Logo and Trademark

By Tom Speranza, J.D.

Difference Between a Logo and Trademark

By Tom Speranza, J.D.

When discussing a company's identity or branding, lawyers and businesspeople often use terms like trademark and logo informally and interchangeably without explaining precisely how each of those things is different and what functions each serves.

Woman standing in front of large poster which says "brand" surrounded by colorful diagrams while gesturing towards a group of seated people

What Is a Trademark?

Trademarks are the general term for the words, symbols, designs, images, and colors that businesses use to identify their products and services in the marketplace. The purposes of any trademark are to:

  • Communicate to potential customers that the product or service comes from a single company or source
  • Distinguish a company's products and services from those products and services sold by its competitors

For example, the iPhone trademark tells the world that those smartphones are produced and sold by Apple and are different from the Pixel smartphones produced and sold by Google.

What Is a Logo?

A logo is a specific type of trademark that uses design elements other than just words to achieve the trademark's essential functions of identifying a product's source and distinguishing it from competing products. Logos are basically a visual or graphic representation of a company's identity and/or its products and services. They can include any or all of the following elements:

  • Words
  • Symbols
  • Colors
  • Fonts
  • Images
  • Letters or acronyms
  • People, animals, or other fictitious characters

For example, the iconic stylized apple symbol is a logo used by Apple as a trademark for its corporate identity (Apple Inc.), its products (e.g., iPhone, MacBook), and its services (e.g., Apple Music, iMessage).

The Google logo, consisting of a distinctive font and multicolored letters (specific shades of blue, red, yellow, and green), functions as a trademark for Google's corporate identity (Google LLC) and its various products (e.g., Pixel, Google Home) and services (e.g., Google Maps, YouTube).

As a result of long-term exposure to advertising, most adults can immediately recognize hundreds of logos used by the providers of consumer products and services. Most well-known logos consist of combinations of graphic elements to achieve their distinctive look:

  • McDonald's restaurants: golden arches
  • NBC television network: rainbow colors and peacock symbol
  • Pillsbury baked goods: fictitious character (doughboy) plus white and blue colors
  • KFC restaurants: the likeness of a real person, Colonel Sanders
  • IBM: the stylized letters "IBM" plus distinctive blue color

Can the Rights in a Logo Be Protected?

As with any other trademark, a business can establish rights in a logo in two different ways.

Use in the Marketplace

Under state law, businesses accrue common-law rights in their trademarks just by using them in the marketplace. Those rights only extend to the specific geographic areas where the marks are used (usually measured by where products and services are sold and the territorial reach of the business' advertising) and are subject to limitations based on priority and confusing similarity.

In other words, your business can only prevent another company from using the same or similar logo if both of the following apply:

  • Your business started using its logo before the potential infringer started using its logo.
  • The other company's logo is confusingly similar to your logo.

Confusing similarity is usually determined by comparing the appearance of the two logos and analyzing the overlap between the products, services, and customer base of the companies. The ultimate question is whether the potential infringer's logo would likely cause a reasonable consumer to mistake one company or its products for the other.

Federal Registration

To acquire national rights in a logo, a business must register it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), which confers national priority on the owner as of the filing date (for an intent-to-use application) or the registration date (for a use-based application). Conducting a pre-application clearance search for a logo is more complicated than confirming that a word-based trademark is available, so a commercial search firm is typically needed to review the various databases.

Prosecuting a PTO application for registration is also complex, particularly for a trademark involving design elements. Retaining an experienced intellectual property lawyer to handle your company's trademark registrations is the easiest way to successfully navigate the PTO's filing requirements.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.