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.

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.

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.

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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


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What Is Substantial Alteration of a Copyright Infringment?

When someone takes your original song, or your book, movie or film, and uses it without your permission, copyright infringement occurs. The infringer may just copy your original work outright or may create something similar to your work but altered. When two works are similar, but not identical, it can be difficult to distinguish permissible versus impermissible copying. Can you recognize your work in the second work? If so, are the two works substantially similar to the point of infringement? Or, is the new work so substantially altered that a new and valuable work has been created?

Does a Copyright Protect an Author's Creative Idea?

Copyright laws give authors and other creators property rights for their works of original authorship, including the rights to reproduce, distribute, and display their works. One of the fundamental principles of copyright law is that a copyright protects expressions but not creative ideas. Although this basic rule seems straightforward, it may be difficult to apply in some cases.

How to Get Licensing for Shirts

Anyone producing T-shirts or other apparel for sale must get permission in order to use any image, trademark, logo or design that is protected by copyright. If the copyright has been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, then the copyright holder has the right to sue for damages if his creation is used for profit without his permission (there is no enforcement without registration). Thus it is very important to secure that permission, which in most cases will involve a licensing arrangement.

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