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Who owns my logo? The graphic design company that developed it or me?

You may have hired a graphic artist or agency to develop your company’s logo. Do you know who owns the rights in it?

There are two main types of intellectual property rights that can reside in a logo: copyright and trademark. Copyright protects an original work of authorship fixed in tangible means of expression; typically, a creative or artistic piece that is drawn, painted, saved, or otherwise recorded. Trademark rights protect the use of a symbol or identifier in connection with the sale or advertisement of a product or service.

Copyright usually vests in the person that created the work. However, when someone is hired by another to develop a work, the copyright may be owned by the employer or hiring party. Generally, in standard salary-based employment relationships, the employer will own copyright in works produced by the employee. But a graphic artist hired to develop a logo isn’t a standard employee – he or she is an independent contractor. The fact that the work is being produced expressly for the company’s use as an emblem for its identity likely weighs toward finding that the company is the owner of the copyright in the work, but it doesn’t provide a guarantee. A contract should be in place between the company and the graphic artist defining the relationship, and it should also cover the copyright in the work(s) produced.

Why is copyright a concern? Technically, if it were determined that the graphic artist retained ownership in the copyright, then the company would be infringing that copyright each time it used the work as its logo (absent a licensing agreement). Ouch. Or, if the company wanted to make a similar logo with a few slight differences, that newer logo could be considered an infringing derivative work of the original. Losing control of the copyright effectively equates to a loss of the ability to use and develop the logo.

Trademark rights are more clear-cut. Trademark rights arise only where there is use. While the graphic artist may have developed the logo, she did not use it in a trademark sense; in other words, she did not advertise a product with the mark affixed or sell an item that carried the logo. She has merely created the mark, and creation alone does not spawn trademark rights. Therefore, trademark concerns shouldn’t be too problematic when using a graphic artist to develop a logo.

Nevertheless, make sure that the contract with the graphic artist deals with trademark rights. There isn’t a reason for the graphic artist to hold onto any copyright or trademark rights that might arise in the work she creates. Her business isn’t holding copyright and trademark lawsuits over people’s heads; it is helping people develop creative and effective logos for their businesses.

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  1. Does the designer have the unencumbered ability to continue to use his designs in his portfolio? I often see design magazines, for instance, with examples of an artist’s work which was done for a client but is being presented as representative of the kind of work a designer can do. For instance, look at this site of my friend Georgia Deaver. http://georgiadeaver.com/
    Would a company that purchased a design have the right to complain if an artist uses it for self-promotional purposes?

  2. Hi Tom,

    I thought the first part of your article for business-folk about ownership of their logos was helpful and accurate for people who are working with graphic designers (like myself). At the end of the article, though, you state that, “There isn’t a reason for the graphic artist to hold onto any copyright or trademark rights that might arise in the work she creates.”

    I wanted to point out to you that there is a VERY good reason why graphic artists have an interest in protecting our copyrights. The logo that you design today could be used to make someone buckets of money down the road. Of course, without USE there are no buckets, and I don’t endeavor to ignore the amount of capital and work that go into building a new company or brand. More, I advocate for extended and generous licensing agreements with the origination of logo and brand elements so that companies have the opportunity to explore the brand that has been developed for them, and if they should grow and begin to prosper through that brand look they can negotiate a fair royalty or buyout for further use of the artwork. It’s more equitable for everyone.

    Molly McCoy

    1. You make an excellent point, Molly, and I think your approach to licensing is well thought out. Indeed, the creation of a great mark enables the mark owner to leverage it more easily to build a strong brand, and perhaps the graphic artist should be rewarded additionally for that. But I don’t think there is a reason, from the trademark owner’s perspective, that the graphic artist should hold onto the copyright. A forward-looking licensing agreement like the one you advocate is an intelligent deal for the graphic artist. In extreme cases, such an agreement could be very helpful. You probably know better than me, but I once heard that the designer of the Nike Swoosh was paid something like $50 (though Phil Knight later gave her some stock in the company).

    2. In regards to intellectual property…what if an artist creates a logo for a small business with no copyright or trademark or contractual agreement as a “favor”? Is that company permitted to use the logo? The original artist, which is a family member, is now threatening to sue because of a family argument. Is there validity?

  3. I know this is a relatively older post, but I just came across this looking for some stuff to copy and paste to show to a client about copyright.

    I can’t disagree with you more about the “there is no reason for a designer to hold copyrights”. Actually it is the other way around. There is rarely a case (unless a large multi-national corporation) when the business needs to have the copyrights.

    Derivative works are the only grey area where a business might want to venture in to, but that can easily be put into a license and there is NO reason for a company to literally be able to claim that design as something of their creation.

    As a designer, I hold the copyrights to all work I do and I give very generous licenses which include:
    Transfers – if you sell your business, you can sell the brand as an asset.
    Exclusivity – your mark will not be remade and re-purposed in any way
    Mediums – client can use the logo on any medium so long as it pertains directly to the business entity as it stands at the time of contract. T-shirts, letterhead, business cards, stickers.. ANYTHING to promote their business. The caveat is, if I make a logo for a company that, when they come to me, sells pet supplies and all of a sudden they get a reality TV deal and they want to use that logo, the license does not cover that and I am entitled to additional license fees because the logo was not created for that.

    If you look at as the limited licenses and detainment of copyright on the designer’s side is more for the client’s benefit. We are able to give them a lower starting point but still a great product. The company can grow the business using the saved capital from buying out the rights and expand the business so that they can one day invest in buying out the rights.

    I think more importantly, people who write blogs for business owners need to stress the importance of finding a fair and reputable graphic designer. If you fight a designer who has done good work with great recommendations you are more likely going to never be in a “pickle” when it comes to your logo. Finding a designer who can asses your situation fairly without dollar signs in their eyes is what you want.

    you do not need to own copyrights on your logo to register a trademark.

    1. I completely disagree with Lindsay’s advice, because it’s geared solely around empowering the designer’s bank account, and that’s about it.

      As a publishing house who hires designers regularly, we advise the following two rules, before money changes hands:

      1. ALWAYS have the designer sign a ‘Deed For Assignment of Copyright’ (available free from the Internet).

      2. NEVER, hire a designer who refuses to sign the Deed.

      As a rule we will not hire a designer without a signed ‘Deed For Assignment of Copyright’. From past experience, we’ve learned how expensive it can be not to do so.

  4. one more comment about the Nike logo.

    Wouldn’t you consider this a case of a designer who could have gotten taken advantage of greatly? Clearly the company did the right thing in giving that person stock in the company, and the reason they did this is because even though they could have lawyered her right out of the contract, they knew that the graphic designer was an integral part in their branding which lasted decades.

    The proof that they paid $35 up front and then essentially “bought out” the rights with stock options is more proof on the designer’s side. This designer was clearly paid handsomely as well because she now does 100% volunteer work and hobbies.

    1. Hi Lindsay,

      Thank you for your comments – you make good points. Please see Molly’s comments and my response to them. In some situations, a license between a designer and a commissioning company can not only be smart, but necessary to both preserve the designer’s rights and allow the company to use the logo.

      I agree that a company should seek out a fair and reputable designer. This article was written to tease out some general issues a company should consider when hiring someone to design a logo. By thinking of extreme examples – a graphic designer who is holding a company’s logo hostage with copyright, e.g. – the company can more intelligently enter into an agreement with the designer. By combining that forward-looking thinking with common sense, professionalism, and fairness, both the company and the designer should be able to come to a mutually beneficial understanding.

      The Nike example is one where the graphic designer could have been taken advantage of, in the sense that she would not have been paid proportionally to the eventual value of the mark. Without knowing the agreement between her and Nike, we can assume that she made a deal, either a good deal or a bad deal. It is examples like that one that designers should keep in the back of her head. What if this logo flops? What if this logo becomes iconic around the world? Do I care whether the logo does well, and if so, do I want to have an agreement that rewards me accordingly? Or, conversely, do I focus on doing the best job I can in the moment and not worry about what the client company does with ten years down the road, remaining content with the product I deliver and payment I receive? These are some of the considerations – personal and professional – that a designer may take into account on a case-by-case basis to decide how a particular agreement will be written.

      Lastly, I don’t believe the article said that copyright ownership is necessary to register a trademark. Please let me know if it appears that is not the case.

  5. As a professional graphic designer, I can’t stress the importance of spelling out copyright terms in contracts with clients. It’s startling to realize the amount of ignorance there is on the issues of copyrights. An increasing number of our clients (predominantly small businesses) have no idea of copyright terms or standards. We’re even asked to just copy something from Google Images. (Apparently “publicly accessible” is now confused with “public domain”.) However, I’m equally startled by the number of artists who never never mention copyright to their clients, or (worst of all) proudly tout that they don’t charge copyright on their original work.

    The Graphic Artist Guild is offering a teleclass on copyrights June 16: WHY COPYRIGHT?: What Artists and Employers Need To Know Before the Relationship Begins, presented by Attorney Amy B. Goldsmith (http://www.graphicartistsguild.org/current-teleclass/). (Full disclosure: I’m on the board for the Guild, and organization which strongly advocates for the rights of commercial artists.)

    One last question on copyrights: my understanding is that a transfer of copyright can be terminated by an artist 35 years after the the execution of the transfer (for works created after 1977). If that’s the case, couldn’t an artist who transferred copyrights for the logo of a little start up — for argument’s sake, maybe for a guy selling sports shoes out of his garage — terminate the transfer of the copyright in 35 years and negotiate a more equitable rate should the company blossom to a hugely successful multinational with a kicking identity based on that original little logo?

    1. @Rebecca – I hear the same things frequently, too – clients confused about public domain v. publicly accessible. The internet makes copying so easy that it doesn’t seem wrong – too many people believe that if it is there “for free,” it is there to take. This is sort of like seeing a bike leaning against a lightpole, not seeing a price tag, and determining that it must be okay to take the bike.

      With respect to your other question, termination of copyright transfers can be very complicated and dependent on several factors, so I’m hesitant to give a solid answer to your Nike hypo. The nature of the original transfer, the relationship of the parties, the timing of the termination, the method of termination, the rights conveyed – all these factors can affect the analysis. Also, even after termination, some rights can persist for the original receiving party. Sorry I can’t be more helpful with that one!

  6. I hired someone to create all my labels and my website. She put other work in front of mine and delayed my website development for 6 months. It is now stuck because she doesn’t (or says she doesn’t know how) to finish –
    When I told her I dont want to give her any more work – (she has been paid 1300.00 and has not done the shopping cart that I have paid for) she told me I cannot go to anyone else because they have to recreate all my work due to copywrites. I don’t see how someone can hold my business hostage and she has a new story or excuse every day for why it is one day later… SIX MONTHS???? what fall back do consumers have? I cannot even transfer my site to someone else b/c she used WP…

    1. Hi Sue – Problems like these can be incredibly difficult and frustrating. If you can’t work it out diplomatically, you may want to consider talking to a contract / business litigation or intellectual property lawyer for advice.

      1. Oh Gosh – That was what I was hoping to avoid. If I paid her for a shopping cart and it has yet to be delivered regardless of whether she has her stuff copywritten – is that something I have any rights to? Also, if she doesn’t know how to do it and she sold it to me, isnt that a problem. One last thing….I have always been able to move websites from one place to another and she will not let me move it from her servers.

        1. Hi Sue – You have a lot of questions, and unfortunately, I can’t answer any of them because I am not your lawyer. I strongly recommend you contact a local attorney who can advise you on these matters. Best of luck.

  7. I’ve been reading this blog looking for sound bites and ammo when my client of 28 years asks me for their artwork. I have been creating through my agency all of their brochures for 30+ multi-family properties. My signed contracts all specifically say I own the artwork. We have currently redesigned all to print together in a big batch to save money. They are holding the process up, wanting to see original printing quotes. I don’t work that way, never have. I mark up printing (in this case 15%) to cover print production. I don’t doubt they are getting their own quotes. But then what? I have the artwork. I also don’t want to “hold their artwork hostage”, but I want to be treated fairly. Is this considered the same copywrite laws you refer to? And if I do offer a buyout, how much is customary? I remember reading something about 3x the creation fee… but cannot find anything on this. Can you suggest a starting point?

    1. Hi Sheryl – This likely involves more business concerns than legal concerns, although it does touch on some legal issues. I cannot give advice to you regarding those legal issues, however, because you are not a client and I don’t have the full factual background. You may want to talk with a trusted business adviser if you are unsure about how to proceed. If they cannot help, an intellectual property attorney or a lawyer who has experience negotiating contracts may be advisable.

  8. Tom,

    I recently commissioned a local design company to help me with a logo. I gave some guidance about colors, and that I wanted a stylized version of the company’s initials as the logo. I paid for the work upfront; I signed a terms and conditions that said that any usage rights not exclusively transfered to the client were reserved by the company. So I looked at the usage rights paperwork and item #1 says that the Company releases all rights to any artwork or project with the exception of mutual use for advertisement and marketing purposes as well as editing rights. I read that as “they surrendered all rights to the artwork”. The logo went back and forth a few times with me providing input (so how much was his creativity and how much was mine?) and it got to the point that it was acceptable to me.

    Then he springs on me that he owns the copyright to my company’s logo and that if I ever want to sell my company I can’t include the logo in the offering without written consent from him and additional renumeration…I did not sign the final document.

    I find this idea that the logo belongs to the “person who created it” as a bit strange when the only reason they “created” it was because (in this and similar cases) someone paid you to create it using design elements from existing branding material of the company.

    If you want to get rich off of your design abilities then charge the rate you want for the work. Don’t try to use the concept that a business that someone builds up until it’s worth something is taking advantage of you for logo work you were paid to do when it was a startup.

    This idea that the Nike swoosh logo has intrinsic value and is worth something without the hard work of all of the employees of the company, it’s leadership, it’s innovation, the management of processes and systems that provide goods and services to more people, managing their costs, mitigating risks, managing supply chains and distribution channels (and the list goes on and on) is kind of incredible to me.

    I’m not talking about a work of art that might have intrinsic value apart from the company, like an Andy Warhol painting or a statue or a photograph that another company might want to use in their branding because it has value. I’m talking about lines, colors, lighting effects etc that have no value apart from the company they were created to represent.

    I finally told the guy I was not comfortable with the idea that he “owned” my company’s logo when I had paid him to create it but he too brought up the Nike swoosh…I think we have worked it out but I agree with you Tom – he has no real reason to keep the rights to my company logo (other than to advertise his capabilities which I am happy for him to do) except to extort money from me at some point in the future if I happen to build a company that has value and try to sell it. He needs to focus on building his own company’s value not hold copyrights to the logos he is paid to create for others.


    1. Tom,

      I agree wholeheartedly with Caleb.

      If someone is paid to design a logo then the purchaser is paying for that service to be provided.

      The logo itself can do nothing without the business people behind the company promoting their product and marketing their product to their prospective end-users. The logo becomes the ‘memory’ carrier for those ideas that we relate to the product but only after (usually) hefty and repeated advertising and marketing to make that logo become the ‘memory’ carrier. But the logo, in my opinion, should still remain the property of the purchaser.

      I find it incredulous that some of your writers on the one hand think it is wrong to ‘take as free’ off the internet and yet find it acceptable to either ‘hold hostage a company’ or expect a ‘share’ of the company profits ‘if’ that company succeeds in the future!

      What if we considered the reverse? What if the company failed? Is it then the logos fault? Does the company then have the right to come after the logo designer ‘demanding’ recompense? I don’t think your readers would find that totally un-acceptable.

      The graphic designer who has been paid to design a logo and has been paid for that product / service has done their bit when they ‘deliver’ the final logo. With all due respect, and again, it’s in my opinion, that was the end of their role in the matter. If they believe so well in their work then they should charge accordingly and be upfront about their expectations.

      If I pay for a logo then I would expect it to be mine and for my use as I see fit.

      I think your article has brought up a very good topic Tom and in the end a contract should be written up to cover these ‘rights’ of ownership and copyright. I do feel however that it should not be necessary. The right of ownership is implied in the purchase of the product.

      I really had not expected that this topic could turn into such an issue for a client paying for the service of designing a logo. It really is another case then of ‘buyer beware’.

      Thank you for highlighting this ‘issue’.


  9. What happens if one creates a logo for a business, they refuse to pay for it, but they are using it on sites, business cards, etc? I designed a logo electronically (online) for a client. After several revisions and 20 hrs of work later, he loves it. I send the invoice to him and he now refuses to pay, yet my logo is good enough for him to use from New Jersey to Michigan? Do I not have any rights in denying him use of this logo?

    1. Yes, you do. Call a laywer. It won’t take much to prove you made the logo and own the rights to it (standard CC). In the long run you’ll get more for illegal use of your intellectual property than you would have for the logo design in the first place.

  10. I created a logo with a company’s name and have not told them about it ( nor anyone else except my wife). I want to copywrite it and then present it to them. I know they will think it is the best design for their company in the last 20 years. The company is as big as “Ford”. Please tell me “How, What, Why, When and any other details. Thanks.

  11. I have another question –

    My great uncle passed away and left the family dairy farm – or what’s left of it – to my younger cousin (22). My cousin is reopening the farm producing vegetables and is holding a CSA this season. He’s asked me to develop a logo for him pro bono (as the family architect/designer) that mimics the design of one of the old milk bottle caps. The bottle cap must be from the 1930s-1950s and has no copyright or trademark, and of course, no signature. No one in the family knows who developed the image or where it came from.

    I’ve taken an image of the bottle cap and traced it using illustrator to make something that can be reproduced at a high resolution for everything: business cards, signage, t-shirts, the whole nine yards. I would like to Trademark the farm name and the logo but I’m not sure if there is any type of infringement in this situation. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    1. I’m sorry SRogowski – I can’t give advice since you are not a client, but I do wish you the best of luck! Sounds like a fun project!

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