Breaking Down Logo Copyrighting

Out of all the assets your company owns, or will come to own, none may be as important as your logo. It’s the defining feature of your company, helping consumers recognize your company when they land on your website, download your app from the app store or pick up one of your products at the grocery store. Without it, your company would be faceless and your customers wouldn’t be able to distinguish your company from one of your competitors, which will cripple your bottom line and your company’s reputation.

Just like you would take out an insurance policy on your car, home or the office your company calls home, your logo is an asset that needs protection. But a logo isn’t a tangible good; it’s a piece of intellectual property or, at the very least, the most important aspect of your company’s brand. So instead of an insurance policy, you can protect your logo using a copyright or trademark. A copyright protects creative works such as books, plays, music, fine art, computer programs and even architectural works and blueprints. Getting a copyright ensures that your company has the exclusive right to publish or distribute your logo, whether you’re in business or not. Copyrighting a logo isn’t the right choice for every business, as some companies can get by just fine with a trademark. We’ll explore all the reasons why you might need to copyright your logo, how to do it and how to enforce your rights as the owner or author of a logo.

Creating a Contract Between You and Your Graphic Designer

If you’re going to copyright a logo, you need to create one first. Some entrepreneurs or small business owners without a lot of startup capital at their disposal may want to design the logo themselves if they have some design skills. But if you’re like most small business owners, you’ll want to hire a graphic designer, whether it’s an employee or a freelancer you find on websites, like Upwork. Most new businesses don’t have the funding to retain a graphic designer on staff, so hiring an independent contractor usually makes the most sense.

In order to hire this person, you’ll need to come up with a contract that clearly stipulates that your company is the sole owner of the end product, giving you the sole right to publish and distribute whatever image the person creates. If you’re passing off the project to one of your employees, this person will most likely already be under contract and another one may not be necessary. If you’re creating the logo yourself, you’re already the sole owner. If you’re not sure how to go about writing a contract for a work for hire, you may want to contact an attorney. You’ll need this contract going forward to prove that the logo does, in fact, belong to you or your company.

Deciding Between a Copyright and a Trademark

Once you have a stunning new logo for your company, you’ll need to decide whether to register for a copyright or if you can get by with a trademark. This tends to be a challenging decision for many business leaders because a logo can fall under multiple categories. It can be used to market goods and services as a part of your company’s brand. Or it can be a truly original work of art that falls under the category of intellectual property. Depending on how you categorize your logo and the level of artistic creativity that went into the logo, you may want to register for a copyright, a trademark or both.

When to Copyright a Logo

You should copyright your logo if it qualifies as an original work of art. If this seems vague, now you know why the decision to copyright a logo can be so challenging for some companies. A copyright is not used to protect names, phrases, colors and simple logo designs like a few letters, the basic name of your company or a straightforward symbol that can be found pretty much anywhere. So, if you’re just using the name of your company in bubble letters to market your goods and services, you don’t need a copyright. But if you or your graphic designer created a completely unique image like a cartoon character, an intricate label design or a symbol that you can’t find anywhere else, you might need a copyright.

When to Trademark a Logo

There’s a clear distinction between a copyright and a trademark. You may need a trademark instead of, or in addition to, a copyright. A trademark protects your logo as an aspect of your brand, so another company can’t use a similar logo to market their goods and services in the same market. This limits confusion in the marketplace, establishing your company as the sole owner of your brand. You’ll need a trademark for your logo if you’re trying to market to a wide audience or if you plan on dealing with stiff competition in the marketplace. In order to trademark your logo, your company needs to be actively selling goods or services or planning on doing so in the future. You can’t trademark a logo if you don’t plan on going into business. In that case, you’re better off with a copyright.

When to Do Both

You may need a copyright and a trademark if you’re going into business, reaching a wide audience and you consider your logo to be an original work of art.

When to Go Without

Creating or commissioning a logo automatically grants you ownership of the material. You may not need a copyright or a trademark for your logo if you don’t plan on going into business and your logo has a relatively simple design. You also don’t need a copyright or a trademark for your logo if you’re a local business operating in a small market, such as a small town. This means you have relatively little or no competition and your logo is just the name of your business or a simple symbol.

Registering with the U.S. Copyright Office

If you decide that you need a copyright for your logo, you’ll need to register with the U.S. Copyright Office. Head over to their official website and you can fill out your application online or print off the form and mail it to the address listed on their website. You can click on the Registration Portal to create your account in the system. To copyright your logo, you’ll want to register your logo as a visual art. This includes logos, drawings, paintings, illustrations and other visual mediums.

The application guidelines vary based on the nature of your logo, how it will appear, where it will be used and what kinds of materials were used to create it. You can use the Deposit Requirements for Registration of Claims to Copyright in Visual Arts Material for more information. At the bottom, you’ll see a list of different mediums and the submission guidelines for both published and unpublished works.

Generally speaking, you’ll need to upload an exact copy of how your logo will appear to the public, including accurate colors, fonts and other defining features. This means you’ll need an image that falls under the following categories:

  • Complete Copy: This refers to the complete copyrightable material, including your entire logo and all other visual features that may be associated with it, such as supporting text or the name of your company.
  • Best Edition: This means the best copy of your logo, usually the largest, most detailed version or the original design with the highest quality.
  • Identifying Material: This refers to three-dimensional works that may need to be broken down into two-dimensional renderings, showing the visual image from different perspectives to ensure the Copyright Office has a complete understanding of the visual image in question.

If you hired a graphic designer, you’ll need to register as a “work for hire.” Registering online for a copyright as the sole author costs $35 and works for hire cost $55. If you register using a paper application, it costs $85. Your submission materials will not be returned, so don’t mail in the only original copy of your design.

Your copyright goes into effect as soon as the Copyright Office receives your application, so you can start or continue using and publishing your logo as you see fit. It usually takes the office around 13 months to process an application. You may want to expedite the process if you’re looking to break into a competitive market right away. If you choose this option or other special handling services such as additional application materials, it will cost an additional $50 to $800.

If you created the logo yourself, you’ll retain sole ownership for the duration of your life plus another 75 years, giving you the exclusive right to publish or distribute the work. If your logo is a work for hire, you or your company will retain sole ownership 95 years after the date of first publication or 120 years after the date of creation.

At any point during the application review process, you can submit a request to check the status of your application or to upload a new copy of your logo. Once the 13-month period has ended, you’ll receive a paper copy of your copyright in the mail from the Library of Congress. This includes an identification number for your copyright, giving you another way to recognize your claim.

Enforcing Your Rights as the Owner of the Logo

Now that you’re the proud owner of a fully copyrighted logo, you’re free to file a lawsuit in federal court if your copyright is infringed upon, i.e., someone copies your logo design or uses it for another purpose. Some companies may hire a copyright lawyer in this situation to represent them in court. If someone infringes upon your rights as the copyright owner, you may:

  • Ask the court to send a cease and desist order to prevent future violations, forcing the infringing party to stop displaying the image.
  • Be entitled to damages for any money your company may have lost due to the copyright violation, including, in some circumstances, any legal fees incurred by your company.

In order to receive damages and stop another person from using your logo, you must prove:

  • The infringing party clearly copied key aspects of your original copyrighted material.
  • The work is fully protected by a copyright and not covered under the fair use doctrine.
  • Your company did not authorize the infringement via a contract license.
  • The lawsuit is being brought within the statute of limitations.
  • The infringing party was fully aware, or had reason to be aware, that the work was copyrighted at the time of the infringement (this is why you should use the copyright symbol when displaying your work in public).

Hopefully, no one has the gall to copy your logo, especially if it appears next to the copyright symbol. This is an easy way to scare off potential copyright infringements. If you are forced to deal with an infringement, it’s usually best to hire a copyright lawyer, depending on the complexity of the case. If the person is in clear violation of the copyright, you might be able to deal with the matter on your own.

Copyrighting a logo is not the right choice for every company. You only need to explore this option if a great deal of artistic virtue went into the creation of the piece. Remember to be upfront with your graphic designer about who owns the completed design by having them sign a contract. Applying for a copyright shouldn’t take up too much of your time, but you should carefully review all submission guidelines. Finishing the application is all you need to copyright your logo and the official copyright should arrive in the mail within the next 13 months once the Copyright Office has received your application. You’ll have peace of mind knowing that your logo is full copyrighted.