Copyright Issues In Logo Design

Copyright Issues In Logo Design

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Copyright is an issue that doesn’t come up very often in blog articles, especially in logo design so I thought I would bring this topic up to see if we could learn something from it, myself included.

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I should mention that this article starts off a bit technical, but bear with it… clarifications come further in the article.

AIGA, the professional association for design, defines copyright as:

“The exclusive right to control reproduction and commercial exploitation of your creative work. Copyright protects any kind of artwork, including illustrations, photographs and graphic design. Except under certain circumstances (see “work made for hire” section), you own the copyright in your work at the moment you create it in a “fixed form of expression.” A fixed form of expression is any tangible medium that can be perceived by humans, including traditional forms—such as paintings, sculptures, writings—and new forms that require a machine to perceive (e.g., GIF files, CDs, websites).

Source: AIGA Copyright Basics For Graphic Designers

I am not going to go into the basics of copyright here, as you can read about that in the link above but I would like to bring up some areas worthy of discussion…

Based on the definition given by AIGA above, you own the copyright of your own design once “you create it in a “fixed” form of expression” but the question is where can you draw this line?

For example, say I am going to design a logotype (ie. a logo that is made out of a typeface only)… this means I will have to use a typeface designed by another designer. Assuming I have paid for the license of that particular typeface, does this give me exclusive rights to change / alter the typeface and then resell it onto a client?

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The closest answer I came across was found in this article titled Can We Use Fonts In Logo Design? by Mark Monlux, of the Graphic Artists Guild.

It is true that the USA Copyright Office does not copyright typeface design. However, that does not mean that typeface does not have some restrictions. Specifically in the Copyright Ruling of 1988 it says regarding typefaces: “Useful articles are not protected except to the extent the articles contain artistic features capable of existing separately and independently of the overall utilitarian shape. Variations of typographic ornamentation [or] “mere lettering” are not copyrightable.”


Turning that legal jumble into English, it is to my understanding (correct me if I am wrong) that we CAN NOT edit a font and sell it to a client as “mere lettering” of the font. ie. Since our logo will be using characters out of a copyrighted typeface (scalable fonts are copyrightable) it is classified as “mere lettering” and it is “independent of the overall utilitarian shape” which means that it exists separately from the typeface itself, therefore making it illegal to sell on as a derivative of the typeface.

So what can we do? Monlux continues on in the article:

“Ask first [the type foundry], get permission [to use the typeface]. Most type foundries have user agreements printed with the disks they supply or posted online at their websites. All user agreements are not alike. Read through them and see if permission is already granted. If the foundry does not hold all the licensing to the typeface then they should be able to provide you with the name of the artist who created it.”

So to clarify, to use any part of a scalable typeface in a logo design that we want to resell onto a client, we must first read the user agreement and / or check with foundry to confirm whether we may use the typeface in the logo design.

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Monlux confirms this in his replies saying that:

It’s typically permissible to use typefaces in brochures, books, magazines, and other enlightening, and informative works because the typeface is being used as typeface. But speciality uses (such as logo design) are going to require that you do a little homework. Be sure to read that user agreement which comes with your font.


Font Licensing / Design Patents / Trademarks

On this topic of font licensing one should also know that:

“When a font is ‘purchased’ the user never really owns the font – they typically receive a license to use that font on only one computer. These End User License Agreements (EULAs) differ between companies but generally state quite clearly that the fonts may only be used on machines for which there is a valid license.”

Based on this fact, this means that you can not send clients any fonts unless the user agreement specifically allows it. Fonts must be purchased separately per user otherwise it is a violation of the end-user license agreement between the logo designer and the typeface designer.

This leaves me to one question that I could not find the answer to… Does this mean the client will have to pay for another license of the font to be able to use the logo design or do they only have to purchase another license if they want to use the whole typeface? I would presume the latter but I could be wrong.

You Can Still Legally Copy A Font

While researching I also came across something that really caught my eye… According to the SIL:

“If a type designer wants to ‘copy’ a font in a manner legal in the USA, they would now be required to print out every glyph at large size on a printer, then scan the image and import it into the font design program. They could then manually or automatically trace the image. This seems to be perfectly legal under current understandings of US copyright law, but may not be morally acceptable.”

So in the end if worse comes to worst (and I mean worst), you could still technically ‘copy’ a font.

So, what do you know about copyright in logo design? Please share your knowledge in the comments below.

Copyright Resources

Font Copyright / Licensing

General Copyright Resources

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54 thoughts on “Copyright Issues In Logo Design”

  1. I think the problem here is that you’re using the term typeface and font interchangeably, when they are two very different things. A font is an entire collection of letters and numbers with specific rules and guidelines, while a typeface is the final text you “see”. A physical metaphor would be a CD (font) and songs (typeface). A font is made up of typefaces.


    From what I understand from AIGA’s legal mumbo jumbo means is that you cannot type a word using a font and copyright it. To be copyrightable, it must have some type of artistic treatment that makes it unique. Now, how much is enough is debatable. Take Microsoft’s slight cut into the “o” for example.

    Just to be clear when you say font it means ABC 123: and when talking about a typeface it means Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft. As in, I like Adobe’s typeface, I wonder what font they used?

    You’re right about it being a good idea to read the user agreement that comes with your font. Copyright can be very confusing subject, but I think it is worth trying to understand.

    Anyway, your article brings attention to a subject that is often overlooked, and that’s what’s important, right?

    Good article, Jacob.

  2. Wow, great post! It’s something I guess I hadn’t really thought much about. I wonder how this applies to system fonts? Definitely an area I’ll be doing some more research into! Thanks!

  3. Another issue is using stock vectors or “clip art” in a logo. Unless you buy the rights from the original illustrator (or rights holder) you may not hold full copyrights of your own logo.

  4. Jacob, this part of your article had me confused

    “we CAN NOT edit a typeface and sell it to a client as “mere lettering” of the typeface.”

    because I was under the impression that you could alter a typeface and sell it to a client. That is where I thought you might have meant font. I could be wrong. Now that you brought this up I will have to look into it more deeply. Oh and I didn’t mean to infer that you didn’t know the difference between a font and a typeface, I was just looking for a little clarification and sharing what I learned from http://fontfeed.com/archives/font-or-typeface/

    My apologizes if I sounded arrogant or insulting. Not my intention at all!

    Keep up the good work 😉

  5. Great article. To be safe, I would personally not assume that any part of a logo would be legally copyrightable unless I created a symbol or portion of it from scratch. For instance the “leaf” symbol on Mint.com would be copyrightable, which would allow you to interchange typeface as you see fit, but still keep the same copyrighted logo(the leaf).

  6. Personally, I try to stay away from getting into legal-related things as much as I can, but I see why it’s important.

    I guess the best advice is to check your bases first.. find the exact terms of the purchase of a font, or contact the designer to clarify.

    I’m a big supporter of Creative Commons though, especially when doing work for myself. It can be as tight or as loose as you want, but you still give consumers the chance to move about with your content.

    It’s just a pain explaining what it is without sounding nerdy when someone notices the (cc) logo on something.

  7. This is very useful information and will put this in my back pocket and bring out later. When I am doing logos for my clients we always end up on the legal side of things. Thanks

  8. What an interesting topic. It is certainly something I will need to re-read and digest. There is so much on the web right now about typography and logos, yet this is the first article I have seen commenting on the legalities.



  9. Shanna,
    Thanks for the tip… this was an issue brought up here: How Not To Design A Logo.

    I actually thought I did know the difference between font and typeface however I can’t seem to find where I have done the mishap in the article above? Could you tell me where I have written the wrong thing?

    Thanks for the clarifications anyway.

    You can read about font licensing here:

    Szabi, Caleb,
    You’re welcome

  10. Hello Joshua,

    I wasn’t actually saying that I was correct, I was asking you where I have done the mishap, if indeed I had done one. You weren’t sounding arrogant or insulting don’t worry – upon re reading my comment it does sound like I was offended. I have since amended the word typeface in the two spots you said, so thanks for that.

    Some day it will come in handy that you do know it so it’s probably not a wise idea to stay away from legal related things though in saying that I am also guilty of shying away from the technicalities of copyright… which I am sure most others are too but certainly, Creative Commons is a great invention.

    That is true, there seems to be a lack of information on this topic on the web, partly I suppose because copyright itself is so far behind.

  11. Great article Jacob,

    This is the kind of stuff that give me a headache just thinking about it. Thanks (those in the comments included) for narrowing it down.

  12. I never provide fonts – I convert to outlines if letters are involved in a logo. I also do not use clipart for logos – I create something new. Logos are the only time that I feel the final copyright (after payment) belongs to the client as I created the logo as a specialty identity for them. Otherwise I try to follow guidelines of the copyright council and Arts Law. See my legal notes on copyright at
    re artwork copyright:
    Interestingly, if you are commissioned by the federal government in Australia for illustration, the copyright belongs to the government, not to you.

    Music copyright issues (and licenses to purchase) can be read at http://www.apra.com.au

    Continue the good work Jacob. – Karen

  13. Coincidentally I just finished a book titled, “Clearance and Copyright ” by Michael C. Donaldson. This book was so full of useful information and was so easy to read. I had never thought about needing to clear the use of logo shown on someone’s t-shirt that appears in a film? Well, this book answers that question and a lot more! I think that everyone should should become acquainted with copyright laws in order to protect themselves.

  14. Thoughts on the following please:

    A phrase or slogan can not be copyrighted, however, what about this scenario:

    a phrase that has been designed for wear (on shirts etc.) using a standard font that has been changed into vector art, and completely manipulated into a similar, but original font design. Questions:
    A)thoughts on the legality of ‘redesigning’ the font and
    B)copyrighting the phrase created in the new font as a “logo” as opposed to a “phrase”

    Thanks for the input!

  15. This is a *fantastic* topic and one which I reckon should be expanded upon. Any chance of getting a copyright expert on here to chat with us?

    So … something struck me as being odd when creating outlines was mentioned. Even if you do that, the font still looks the same so isn’t it still covered under copyright? If not, that’s cool as it’s one less thing to worry about. In fact … having to contact a font foundry every time you need to use a font would be crazy so I must be missing something.

    Anyway, as I mentioned to a colleague earlier this week, copyright is such a sticky area. What I find interesting (staggering actually) is that most people have no idea that if the designer doesn’t transfer the rights to their logo, etc., they don’t own it. That goes against the ‘common man test’ they talked about during my Marketing Law class, but that’s apparently the law as is stands so what can you do.

  16. if you have a copyrighted artwork and you want to have a slogan that you would sometimes use with it, but not always, would that be TM or copyrighted?

  17. okay, just learned that you can’t C a slogan, just TM it, but is it true that you can use the “TM” after your phrase as long as you are going to register within 3 years? I know you can’t use the “Registered” symbol. Or would you have to TM or reg. at all if your art was copyrighted?

  18. Renee,

    First off sorry for the late response, your comment must have been lost amongst the many others while I was on vacation.

    I am actually not in contact with any copyright expert but if you had a suggestion I will see what I can do.

    I found it strange also that you could outline fonts and make them yours but apparently so – though I have no confirmation of this.

    And yes, it is quite staggering though I have an agreement that I get clients to sign to prove that I have transferred the rights to them.

    I am by no means a copyright expert so I wouldn’t like to give misguided advice though I know you must TM slogans if you wish to protect them. All of your artwork is copyright soon as you put your pen to surface – copyright is automatic.

  19. I just contacted Myfonts.com regarding this and got this response:

    “Regarding use of a font in a logo:
    Licensing is foundry specific and is generally directed to distribution, or use of the actual electronic font file, not so much copyrights or trademarks of a logo using the font.

    Foundries will typically not allow for use of an individual character for a logo (dingbat character or otherwise) in it’s entirety but will allow for words or a phrase.

    It’s always a good thing to confirm the legal aspects of any font purchase by reviewing the license agreement before your purchase. If you place a font in your MyFonts shopping cart you should find a license link for each font. Click
    this to access the selling Foundry License Agreement.”

    I think that is pretty clear (and fair).

  20. What if someone has their hearts set on a logo similar to another one that’s already out there? An example could be, they want one similar to Texas Tech’s? How much change is enough or can there ever be enough change done to it so it isn’t an infringement?

  21. Hi all, the information here is very useful. My question if I copy a logo of another company and modify it to look different than the original design, is this a breach of copyrights!! Bearing in mind the new design will look different but similar with probably similar colors.

    I find i difficult to know what constitute a breach of copyrights of a logo.

  22. Wow, what a great discussion. I’d like to base my new company logo on a rather famous statue. What are the implications of this? Who decides whether “substantial” is met or not?

  23. Mark,
    I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong answer there, however I think it should be fine though you should consider the reasons for doing so – is this statue really something your business should be using as a logo?

  24. So.. Can I trace or hand draw a picture from a “clip art” site and legally use it in a logo? What if i just used the basic idea from the clip art? Where do I draw the line between my work and theirs?

  25. I need help, the graphic designer I hired to design a logo for my business two years ago and got fully paid on the work does not want to give me the photoshop files so I may take it to another print shop giving me a better rate, claims he is the author and I could alter his work with the files, Is this correct? Also heard that he can try to get royalties from this design as a author of it?

  26. Will,
    I wouldn’t recommend using any form of clipart for a logo, you want to have an original design to suit your businesses goals and objectives.

    You should refer to your contract, hopefully that you signed before dealing with this designer.

  27. I have a question to throw out.

    I designed a logo for a not for profit org about 12 years ago that is a line illustration based on a landscape view of a community. (It looks like a linoleum cut, within a circle and has type That was redrawn around the circle.) It was meant to be used on stationary only. For the past several years it has been used on lots of different clothing (a whole other issue, awards, etc and now there is a new website. The website designer has taken big liberties with the logo and isolated elements to put in color so they pop out and look strange (like silk screen elements in color) and the logo no longer has the integrity or the look off the orinal logo in which type and line were integrated. The logo is a large standout item on almost every page of the website with this new odd “coloration”. I designed the logo as a donation for the orgamnization, community and have never asked for money even though people that have sold clothes with it on it have made money.

    I mentioned to the person managing the project that I didn’t like the liberties taken with the logo and that it should be kept in one color as it was designed to be in. He said the website designer wouldn’t like that and he was going to over rule it. Since it is my artwork (not the website designers) don’t I have the right to request that the integrity of the logo stays in tact and that they follow my specifications? Especially since you say that I own the rights to the logo (which is what I assumed all along) and no money was paid for it.

    Would love to hear some opinions.

  28. Catherine,

    I’ve been studying copyright law on my own as it pertains to photography. I’m starting my own web design business and will be providing my own commercial photography to enhance my web designs, so I wanted to understand who has the rights to what under the law.

    Since you were not paid, you were not an employee of the nonprofit, nor can this be considered “work made for hire.” That means unless you explicitly transferred the copyrights for your artwork to the nonprofit in a formal written document, you own the copyright to your own artwork. By default, the copyright goes to the creator of the work, as Jacob said.

    As the artist, you also have “moral rights.” This means that anyone who uses your artwork is obligated to use it in a way which does not degrade its artistic qualities or injure your professional reputation. This part of copyright law applies to art installations, but the way your art is being used could, in some sense, be considered art installations — at least in spirit. I’m not a lawyer, so don’t take my word for it, but I believe this is the essence of “moral rights.”

    What the nonprofit’s web designer likes or dislikes is totally irrelevant. You own the logo — it is your intellectual property. The nonprofit needs your permission to use your intellectual property legally for any purpose whatsoever. If you do not like how your artwork is being used, you have the legal right to object and insist that they abide by your wishes. If they refuse to respect your wishes, you can tell them they are no longer allowed to use your logo. If they continue to use it after you tell them not to, then you can threaten them with copyright infringement. Following up on the threat is another matter, and might prove difficult and expensive without a written contract, formal copyright registration, etc.

    My point is that you do have the legal right to give the nonprofit an ultimatum: “Either stop taking liberties with my artwork or I will withdraw my permission for you to use it at all.” You can tell them that if they disregard your wishes, they will be breaking the law by committing copyright infringement. That should be enough to get them to behave.

    One last thought: Go over the Project Manager’s head. He doesn’t have the legal authority to overrule anything. Your wishes automatically trump the web designer’s wishes since by law, you own the copyright. Talk to the Executive Director or the Board of Directors. These people will most likely realize that it is in their best interests to respect your generous contribution of time and talent. People who run nonprofits want to build bridges, not burn them. That works in your favor.

    Best wishes to you,

    Fred Chapman

    P.S. I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on TV! 🙂

  29. Catherine,

    The U.S. Copyright Office has a website which is a great source of information on copyright law:


    It’s well written, with lots of examples, so that non-lawyers like us can make sense of it.

    There’s also a lot of commentary on copyright law elsewhere on the web, through various professional organizations (e.g., photography).


  30. Frederick,
    Thank you very much for your extended reply, I really wish I had the time to reply to all questions in as much detail as you! For further resources check out my contract bookmarks.

  31. Im just making a logo for my business, and ive found a drawn picture on google that i would like to use. Can i just take it off google and use it. If not how would i go about getting it?

  32. I’m in a little trouble it seems, I was hoping your article touched the situation I am but aparently it does not and none other does either.

    I created a logo, this logo was ultimately not used and now the client has a new shinny logo in their site, still, as it is my costume, I used the logo I created for them and posted it on LP, Creattica and other inspiration galleries.

    Now the problem is that the client found out and they want me to remove it because it was rejected, now, with this I assume they want it removed because it has their name on it, since the mark wasn’t used I own it, but the name I do not.

    What to do? Can they do that?

    Help please, they are a bit edgy.


    • Hi EnriqueG,

      Sorry this reply is over 2 years late, but I’m interested to know the outcome of this?

      I would assume that because you designed an original concept (and although not important, I assume your client paid you a deposit for the work undertaken, even though they didn’t use the final design?) that you would own the design concept and can display it in your portfolio or on your promotional material, regardless of their business name.

      Unless it specifically states in your own terms (you have written terms, right?) or a contract you signed that you would not use any concepts, nobody can stop you displaying your own work in your own portfolio.

      I would recommend anyone offering a graphic design service that they specifically state in their terms how designs can be used, whether approved and paid for or not.


  33. Hi
    I have been asked to design a book cover for a local author. I am using Photoshop and the fonts therin. The final artwork will be supplied as a jpg to the printers. Am I ok to do this? I have legal copies of all fonts used. I am finding this whole font issue very confusing. Any help would be appreciated.

  34. I am new to this and what to make some lighted Steeler signs to sell. I have been triing to research this to make sure i am doing everything by the book as far as the law is concerned but I am not seeming to find anything that makes it clear to me ormaybe i just dont understand it. I have found a sight that says that i can download a free Steelers LOGO Vector tha is not copyrighted but what makes the logo copyrighted. If I make my own it will still look like the general image. Can i do this or can you point me in the right direction? The web site I found the free logo on is called http://www.freelogovector.com Any help anyone can give me would be great. Thanks for you time.

  35. I have a question…our non profit youth soccer organization here in the US has been using a modified version of a Mexican Team’s logo. is this illegal? We basically changed the City name that is written across the logo to our City but kept the rest of the logo the same. Can they go after us? please help!


  36. if I design a typeface and make a font out of it, is it ok to incorporate into the EULA that you cannot trace the design using illustrator or similar program? does it sound ridiculous? its like stating you can only use fonts between 3pm to 5pm…

  37. With havin so much content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement? My website has a lot of unique content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my permission. Do you know any ways to help reduce content from being ripped off? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  38. hi, i have a question here. let say i wanted a logo for my jewelry shop, and then i saw a very common blue color diamond shaped logo for sale in stocklogos.com, but instead of buying it i created exactly the same shape with my adobe illustrator and i changed it into red. was that legal or illegal? thank you.

  39. I have an idea for a logo based on one of the old confederate flags. How would copyright law work in my situation?

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  41. I have a question regarding business logos. I am a recent graduate trying to build my design portfolio. Since I am no longer in school, I have been having a hard time developing my own graphic design projects. As a way to further develop my skills, I have recently taken up the practice of redesigning business logos in my community. I was wondering if this is illegal since I am not under specific obligations for each company. I’m just using this as a way to supplement my time out of school while I look for further employment.

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