Can a Logo Be Modified Once It Has Been Copyrighted?

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Your logo is a major part of your company’s identity, so any smart businessperson registers the image with the U.S. Copyright Office -- as well as securing a trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office -- to prevent others from using the logo or modifying it to use for their own purposes. Once you formally register the copyright of a logo, you receive sole rights to reproduce or change it.

Derivative Works

A copyright holder holds exclusive rights to produce a derivative work based on the copyrighted logo. This right allows business owners to make modifications to any logos or images they copyrighted at any point. In cases when a work changes significantly enough to be recognized as a new work, such as refining or updating the logo, the copyright holder may register the new logo as a derivative work, securing copyrights for the new logo. Creating a derivative work doesn’t extend the copyright period, however, and the logo new falls into the public domain at the same time the original would.

Modifying Others' Logos

Because a copyright holder holds exclusive rights to create derivative works, you can’t modify a copyrighted logo without violating copyright laws by creating an unauthorized duplication. In some cases, the new work may be significantly different from the original enough to be considered a new work. The distinction between a derivative work and a new logo is ambiguous and subject to review by the court on a case-by-case basis. If you’re considering modifying another’s existing logo to use for your business, you may wish to consult an attorney to review your case.

Trademarks vs. Copyrights

While copyrights may protect a logo as a two-dimensional creative work, trademark registration is a more commonly used protection for pieces of a company’s identity. Trademark registration is a process independent of copyright control, and links images such as logos to a company’s business. Modifications on a trademarked logo may result in the need to update your trademark registration. Consult a trademark attorney to determine if your updated company logo must be trademarked again, or if it’s similar enough to your existing trademark to remain protected.

Copyright Violations

Anyone who modifies a copyrighted image such as a logo or uses the logo without its owner’s consent, violates U.S. Copyright Law. If the owner formally registered the copyright with the Copyright Office, she may seek an injunction from the court to immediately force the infringing use to cease. In addition, the copyright holder may seek actual damages -- the amount it directly lost because of another’s use of copyrighted material -- as well as punitive damages that can range from $200 to $150,000 for each infringing use of the copyrighted logo.

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