Designing Award-Winning Signs: Avoiding Copyright Issues69
I’ve seen so many shops use copyrighted materials. Here is a great article from Sign & Digital magazine that will cover the topic properly. Please subscribe to their electronic magazine for numerous articles such as this one.
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.
“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.
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