Designing Signs: Avoiding Copyright Issues

Creating original images will guarantee that you're in the clear

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The internet logo trap

The phone rings, and because you are always the first one in the office, every day, you grab it. It’s the owners of the coffee shop down the street. Once you’ve exchanged niceties, they explain that they have a new logo and want to talk with you about a new channel letter sign for the front of their building. You are enthusiastic about the opportunity for a new sale, but apprehensive about the mention of a new logo. You’ve been in the sign business for a long time, and you’ve seen just about every “impossible to build” logo you could imagine, so you are apprehensive of what you will see, but optimistic that somehow, someway you’ll figure out a way to make it happen.

The time arrives for the afternoon appointment; the door opens with a “ding” as they walk into your shop. The husband is carrying a cup of coffee in one hand with a large piece of black foam board tucked under his arm. They both take a seat at the table, and as he sets the board down beside his chair you catch a glimpse of a piece of paper taped over the top of a very colorful shape. Like a couple of school kids excited about their science fair project, they are itching to show you their coffee shops’ new logo.

They start off by telling you their story and how their old logo never captured the look or feel they wanted for the shop. They explain that one night they were thinking about other coffee shops they had seen and decided it was time to update their logo. So, because the wife is quite fluent in Photoshop she played with some ideas and came up with a design they love.

The husband reaches down beside him and brings up the black foam board and sets it on the table, facing you. He reaches over, lifts the cover sheet and ta-da … there it is: the new coffee shop logo that they love so much. You suddenly realize that you are pleasantly surprised by this logo; it’s well composed and quite buildable as a channel letter sign.

Then, the other shoe drops…

As your eyes scan the design’s bold detailing and clever use of space, you silently begin to question their ability to put out a logo design this good. It seems too good to be true, and it is. As they continue, they tell their story about the development of the coffee shop logo and how they searched and searched the internet to find just the right image that they could change-up to create the new logo that you are holding in your hands.

If this were a movie, you’d hear the sound of screeching tires and brakes right about now. What?

“You created this from an image on the internet,” you ask, fully hoping that the answer would be other than what you feared it would be. You listen to them proudly explain how they found a logo online that they like, and just made a bunch of changes to it.

“Have no fear; it’s all good” she says. They reassure you that using this design would be okay because they changed so many things. it’s now very different from the original, and it’s theirs to use. You ask them to show you the design they used to create their logo and your heart sinks. Sure, they changed a few things, like the name of the business and a few colors, but you know from experience that these two logos still look like twin sons from different mothers.

Time to break the bad news on copyright and trademark

You start to explain to them why they can’t use an image off of the internet in that way, for reasons explainable by an attorney specializing in copyright law, like Alex Johnson of Hamilton IP Law, PC, in Davenport, Iowa. Hamilton IP Law is a “boutique intellectual property law firm” specializing in patents, trademarks, copyrights and other related intellectual properties. As Johnson explains, a common misconception that people have is that simply making some changes to an existing image will mitigate the issue of copyright infringement. However, that is not how the law looks at the use of images from the internet, and understanding the legal issue of copyright infringement is quite complex.

“Not only is each image protected by copyright law, but the image could also be subject to trademark law, too,” Johnson says. If the original is someone’s business trademark, there may be visual elements including colors, fonts as well as wording that are part of that company’s brand. In that case, he says, the consequences of the illegal use of the image could run afoul of trademark law for likelihood of confusion (a topic beyond this article) on top of the potential copyright infringement like the kind you were wary of when this couple showed you the original image.

Substantially similar

“But look, the text is different, the shape is a lot different and the colors are totally different,” your couple pleads. They really feel it has been altered enough to be different, but as Johnson explains, it’s a contextual analysis that is very difficult to determine. As a general rule, merely changing a couple of aspects to that image is likely not enough; unfortunately, and as is often the case, the answer is that “It depends,” and it just is not a good idea. If the image, even after making changes, is found to be “substantially similar,” then it is likely to infringe the original image’s copyright.

So you explain to them that the question is difficult to answer, and rarely worth the risk of using an image that was not your original design, especially to be the face of their business.

Even though you only have a little familiarity with copyrights, you know that there is a simple rule that you can safely recommend to this couple: if you made it from scratch yourself, and did not merely re-draw preexisting ideas you saw elsewhere, you have done what you can to avoid copyright infringement (but as we all know, someone might still find a reason to sue).

Johnson recommends a rule of thumb to follow when it comes to creating a logo for your business: create a unique image from scratch. If hiring a designer, have a written agreement where the artist represents and warrants that it’s an original and that you own it. He also says that if you’re going to use an image you have found, you need to be sure you can verify the owner of the copyright and purchase a license or assignment from them before adopting it.

Johnson added that this goes for everything and anything found on the internet, and that most people don’t understand that ownership and copyright of an original image is automatically given to the person who created it, without the need for paperwork, filings or legalities. That being said, considering the thousands of images available online, it’s easy to see just how difficult it can be to create a truly original design, but the results are worth the efforts. As Johnson advises to his clients, from a foundational basic business perspective, having your branding be based off the image of someone else makes your brand subject to the impression that company has-and impressions change, so it’s best to control your own image and make your brand an original. Why would you want to be a knock off?

How does one use the images from the internet?

Inspiration only. That’s exactly what you use the internet images for, inspiration. It’s not about copying the way the fonts interlock or what the mountain graphic looks like, or even the layout of those visuals. In researching the Web for ideas, you are paying close attention to the visual emotional triggers that make some logos inspirational and others not at all. Professional designers know how to create the right feeling through the use of flow, shape and the arrangement of original images and designs.

Working with someone who understands how copyright law affects all aspects of logo design and the consequences of using a copied image for signage is probably the most important reason for your customers to use a professional in the sign business. It is also why it is important to consult with legal counsel. Knowing the trigger and what to look for is key in the sign industry.

So how do you help your customers who run into possible legal issues?

Contact a copyright and trademark attorney like Alex or the other intellectual property attorneys at Hamilton IP Law, PC at www.hamiltoniplaw.com or 563-441-0207.

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau (shar-bo-no) started his career in the sign industry in 1985 as Charboneau Signs. He initially focused on hand-lettered signs, windows, and vehicles while also providing logo design and graphics. As years passed, he expanded into the world of electric monument signs, combining his eye for graphic design with his mechanical aptitude. He utilized the internet to provide his design services to sign companies around the country, providing remote assistance with design, fabrication, and installation drawings of all types of electric signage. In 2007, he became a contributing writer and the technical advisor for monument signs at SDG magazine. In 2017 he published the Pre-Sale Sign Survey Field Guide. In 2019, he started Storm Mountain Signs and the Sign Design Institute, which offers design training for new sign designers. He is reachable at [email protected] or 970-481-4151.

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