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

By Jennifer Kiesewetter, J.D.

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

By Jennifer Kiesewetter, J.D.

Copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is distributed, reproduced, or displayed without the permission of its owner. One of the most common forms of infringement occurs when a company attempts to use a logo that looks similar or uses similar language as another copyrighted logo. If the competing logo creates confusion, then its owner could face legal action for infringement. However, infringement may not occur if the similar logo represents distinctly different products or the logo belongs to a company in a different geographic region.

The words "copyright infringement" surrounded by other related terms

What is a copyright?

When you design a logo, you want to protect your logo from someone else using it. Logo owners can seek copyright protection for their design, which prohibits another company or an individual from reproducing part or all of your logo without your permission.

A copyright protects original, creative works of expression, such as music, books, and photographs. A copyright doesn't protect the name in the logo, the colors in the design, or short phrases. Logos can be copyrighted if the design is highly and uniquely creative.

Because a copyright can only be used for specific artistic logos, many logo owners seek a trademark, which protects business names, slogans, and other business identifiers. Both a copyright and a trademark can cover a logo.

Should I get permission for use?

If you want to use another company's logo in a blog, presentation, or article, you should ask the owner for permission to use it as opposed to creating a similar design. Many logo owners will grant you permission or will require that you purchase a license for its use.

You can use similar logos without permission in certain situations, such as in works of literary fiction or certain types of commercial advertising. In these cases, the logo falls into fair use, which is a legal doctrine allowing individuals to use copyrighted material without permission from the owner. The Copyright Act identifies what qualifies as “fair use," such as use in criticism, news reporting, teaching, or research. Unfortunately, no hard and fast rules exist for determining whether using a logo falls into a protected fair use category. Because of this, you may want to request permission to use the logo or seek advice from an attorney before publishing your logo.

What happens if I infringe on another logo?

If you don't request permission to use a logo similar to another company's, or your use doesn't fall under the fair use doctrine, you could expose yourself legally. If a court determines that you infringed upon someone else's mark, then you must refrain from using the questionable logo or else you may have to pay penalties or fines.

Copyright infringement is a complicated area of the law. When creating a new logo, you should be aware of any other similar registered copyrighted or trademarked logos. Before creating a logo or using another company's logo in your business, you should consult with an attorney or use an online service provider to assist you in answering any questions you may have regarding the use of the logo and any possible consequences of that use. By receiving additional guidance, you can create and use your logo properly and legally without infringing on someone else's property.

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.

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