Coming up with a unique logo for a business or organization can be challenging, especially with all the logos currently in use. If you find one with general elements or graphics that you like, you may be wondering if you can alter it slightly for your own use.
A logo may be changed and used as long as the original is not copyrighted, the changes are significant enough to no longer hold the “essence” of the original logo, and the new logo will not be confused with the original.
If possible, we recommend using a logo creator to start from copyright/trademark free templates to create your own logo from scratch. This helps avoid any confusion down the road should your brand grow quickly.
Coming up with a unique logo will ultimately help to differentiate yourself from other brands. Keep reading to find out more about altering logos and pertinent information about copyright law.
Can I Change a Logo and Use It?
There are many moving pieces at play when trying to change a logo for your own use. To legally change a logo and use it, you’ll first want to look at the current registration of the logo. If the logo is trademarked, it can still be modified and used as long as the changes are significant enough to avoid any brand confusion or recognition.
If a logo is copyrighted, it cannot be changed and used legally. Copyrights protect logos that have specific creative or artistic elements as intellectual property (Source: Investopedia). Many logos are not protected under copyrights and can still be altered. This is especially true for simpler logos that do not have creative art incorporated.
You should always check if there are any registered trademarks or copyrights before attempting changes to a logo. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a database where you can search for a specific company’s trademark registration and compare companies to your trademarks and services (Source: USPTO).
You should be careful when changing a logo and using it to ensure that you are not infringing on any trademarks or copyrights to images and artwork. Companies may take legal action, which can be time consuming and expensive.
Standards for Changing Logos and Using Them
There are no set standards for how much a logo needs to be changed for you to legally use it. This means no percentage or specific requirements detail what needs to be changed either.
If you want to change a logo and use it, you will need to consider whether the following conditions are satisfied:
- No confusion with the original brand or owner: Avoiding confusion between the original logo and your logo is the biggest factor in determining if you can use the changed logo. It should be different enough that there is no way that a reasonable person or customer would confuse your brand with the original logo. Changes to colors, text, font, and other key elements will help to differentiate the two.
- Logo republication: There should be enough alterations made to a logo that it would need to be registered with the USPTO as a new trademark and satisfy their standards (Source: Small Business Chronicle). This would ensure that the new logo will not infringe upon any trademarks placed on the original logo.
- Different business sector or geographical location: The globalized nature of the marketplace can make these standards more obsolete than previously and may need to be doublechecked with a lawyer in your specific state.
Similar logos are typically not a problem if you operate in an entirely different industry or geographical location. For famous brands, this does not always apply, as anti-dilution laws protect large brands from any small company that could tarnish or distract (Source: Digital Media Law). This will help to solidify the fact that there is no confusion between logos and brands.
Enforcing Trademark Infringements on Changed Logos
Even if you do not change a logo substantially, the company that owns the logo you changed will have to press legal action to stop you from using their logo. The organization or individual will often send a cease and desist letter as a warning to stop using their logo or legal action will follow (Source: LegalZoom).
Companies can press legal action as a first step if they feel that there has been harm caused to their brand due to your changed logo. This could result in monetary damages and sizeable legal fees.
If you are using a famous logo and changing it, you will often be at a much greater risk of trademark infringement and being faced with legal action. Trademark dilution can blur or tarnish the public’s impressions of a brand when others exist with similar logos (Source: Cornell Law). Famous brands have the capital to fight these cases more effectively than small businesses.
We do not recommend using any elements of a famous logo for commercial use.
Can You Change A Logo Without Permission?
If you adhere to the guidelines mentioned throughout this article, you do not need permission to change a logo and use it as your own. Whether or not you need permission will depend on your intended use and the degree to which you make changes.
These are the situations in which you do not need permission to change a logo:
- Substantial changes are made to the logo: This assumes that you have changed the logo to such a degree that there is no confusion or brand recognition of the original company. The key stipulation is that you modify it “enough” to legally use it.
- Fair use: Protected under free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution, logos can be modified and used for informational and editorial purposes or parody and satire (Source: American Bar Association). If changed and used, “fair use” is a defense that can be used in court if a lawsuit is filed. This can sometimes be used for commercial sales, such as a parody t-shirt of a brand.
If you are not substantially changing the logo, it is always safest to ask for permission to avoid potentially expensive consequences.
These are the situations in which you do need permission to change a logo:
- Small changes to a logo: If you want to make small changes and use a logo, you will need to seek permission from the owner of the original logo. This will give you a clear answer and ensure that you can use the logo without any trademark or copyright infringement.
- Changing a famous logo: Unless used for informational or satirical purposes, you should always ask to use a famous logo. It can be difficult to obtain this permission, but they are often the companies that will crack down on these types of infringements.
If you are only changing a logo slightly and want permission, it should not be for commercial use unless it is a parody. This will often drive sales based on the original logo’s brand and likeness, especially if it is a recognizable brand.
If you do choose to change and use a logo, make sure that you have added enough of your own original design to avoid confusion with the original logo. This will help to ensure that you don’t run into trademark infringements. It is in your best interest to do your research on the trademarks or copyrights that the original logo holds and proceed with caution.
Existing logos can help to inspire your logo design or serve other purposes for the communication of information and satire. Just make sure that any time you do change and use a logo, you are doing so with the proper protocol given the specific use.