How to Copyright a Logo on Shirts

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

How to Copyright a Logo on Shirts

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

As a business owner, you might wonder whether and how you can protect the logos you use on apparel, such as company T-shirts and other marketing materials, with intellectual property laws. The answer depends on what the logo comprises. The distinction between copyright and trademark law is often a fine one; some logos may fall under the scope of the Copyright Act, and other logos fall more suitably under trademark law. In some cases, a logo is protectable under both copyright and trademark law.

Machine embossing shirt

Protection of a Logo Under Copyright Law

Under the Copyright Act, copyright protection covers pictorial and graphic works and grants the copyright holder exclusive rights to print, display, and distribute a protectable work. If your logo consists of a stylized or graphic design, it is protectable under copyright law.

However, some material, including words and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans, does not have copyright protection. Examples of material not subject to copyright protection include: the name of a business or brand (think "McDonalds"), a catchphrase ("How you doin'?"), a slogan ("Snap! Crackle! Pop!"), and character names (the name "Superman").

Additionally, you cannot protect familiar symbols or designs under copyright law (e.g. the peace sign, a common shape such as a heart or diamond, or the yin-yang symbol). Finally, the Copyright Act does not protect general typeface, fonts, or lettering.

Registration of Logo Copyright

Copyright protection is automatic for qualifying creative works, and registration with the Copyright Office is not a requirement. However, registration is a good idea because a registered copyright provides you with more rights and protections if someone does attempt to infringe upon your copyright. Additionally, copyright registration is a prerequisite in order to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. To register your logo:

  1. Access the website for the U.S. Copyright Office and click Register a Copyright.
  2. Choose the Visual Arts category, as it includes logos, and click Register a Visual Arts Work.
  3. Create an account here.
  4. Fill out and submit the online application.
  5. Pay the applicable fee.
  6. Upload or mail a copy of your work to the Copyright Office.

You can also register a copyright with the help of an online service provider.

Protection of a Logo Under Trademark Law

Trademark law protects descriptive brand names, company names, logos, titles, and slogans. Examples of protectable marks include the company name "Nike," the image of the Nike swoosh, and the phrase "Just Do It."

The Trademark Act prohibits the use of a known mark or brand by a person other than the trademark holder. Trademark law aims to protect consumers from confusing uses of a mark by someone other than the original trademark holder. Consumers should be able to identify where a product or service comes from by recognizing its trademark.

In order to qualify as a trademark, your logo must be both distinctive and in use. Your mark must be able to identify your company's goods or services. Additionally, you must actually use your mark in commerce.

Registration of Logo Trademark

You do not necessarily have to register your trademark to use or protect it. Your mark is protectable solely by nature of your use of the mark in commerce. However, registering your mark is a good idea. Registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) affords trademark owners additional protections against unauthorized uses, and it is easier to protect a mark once it is registered. Additionally, it is a good idea to register your mark early to prevent subsequent users from attempting to use your mark.

Before you register your trademark, you must first complete a proper search to ensure the mark is not already in use. Seeking the assistance of a qualified trademark attorney prior to registering your mark is a highly recommended move. Visit the USPTO website for plenty of information about registering a trademark and to apply online.

When it comes to logos, you don't necessarily have to register to have protection from copyright and trademark infringement. On the other hand, official registration provides additional levels of protection. Both the U.S. Copyright Office and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office websites have online applications, advice, and step-by-step directions.

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.