What is a logo? What is it not?

The term logo is commonly misunderstood outside the graphic arts world.

At times we have had clients ask us to put a “logo” on a sign and then they provide us with an image they obtained from a clipart service. Once, someone asked me to “find a house logo” on the internet to put on some sign work. Both these requests illustrate how the word logo is commonly misunderstood by the general public. The misconception is that a logo is any graphic image or any piece of artwork.

 

What really is a logo?

Here is a clear and accurate definition of logo: a specially designed mark or emblem used by organizations to aid in promoting instant recognition. It may be composed of letters only or a graphic symbol, or a combination of both. It may embody a trade name or a trademark or both.

The word logo is actually an abbreviation of logotype. A logotype, in the days of printing with metal type, was a single word cast as one piece of type. A logotype was similar to a ligature, except that a ligature was only two or three letters joined in one casting rather than an entire word. In a ligature, the letters themselves are joined, too. Ligatures were created as a way of solving an awkward or unsightly spacing problem between a letter pair. In a logotype, letters may or may not have been joined, but they were cast all together as one large piece of metal type.

Row of ligatures in vintage wood type
Row of ligatures in vintage wood type. Ligatures were a way of modifying unsightly spaces between letters by joining the letters and rendering them on one block or slug of type.

 

By extension, logotype eventually came to mean more than just a casting of an entire word, but referred to any uniquely arranged set of letters. In common usage today, a logo is a specially designed word or symbol, or combination of word and symbol, that officially represents a company or organization, or that represents goods or services of  an organization. Legally, the name of a company is known as its trade name, and a logo may embody a trade name. If a logo or a name identifies a product or service of a company it may function as a trademark or service mark. If a trade name identifies goods or services of a company in addition to being the company name, it may serve as both trade name and trademark. For example, Sony is the name of an electronics company. On letterheads and business cards the Sony name functions as a trade name. But when it is used on consumer goods, such as televisions, it is a trademark.

A logo may be very simple, such as the 3M logo,

3M_ok

or elaborate like the Anheuser-Busch logo.

Anheuser-Busch

It is of note that the 3M logo is type only, devoid of any design treatment other than the fact that the letters kiss. And it is composed of one of the most ubiquitous of letterstyles: Helvetica. By many logo design standards, it would be considered a fail. Yet the 3M brand has been highly regarded for many years, proof that a logo is not what constitutes a brand. Further, while a logo is important, its design may not be as important as some (designers) would have you believe. Logo design, along with other trade dress is not unimportant or trivial. But successful branding involves far more than the design of a logo. Indeed, a brand may develop a reputation of high esteem quite apart from any graphics design associated with it. In contrast, another brand may acquire a bad reputation in spite of excellent design work in its advertising and trade dress.

Some logos are not composed of type at all, but are abstract. The Nike swoosh and the McDonald’s arches carry little meaning intrinsically, but have acquired meaning with time and can easily stand alone and convey meaning without words. The McDonald’s arches are so distinctive that, sitting atop a highway sign, they can be recognized from distances long before lettering is legible. The triangle shape that is part of the Bass ale logo is one of the simplest as well as one of the oldest logomarks in existence.

Bass_Ale

Can a photograph be the basis for a logo? Well, the Michael Jordan “jump man” silhouette, a logo created for Nike, is based on a posed photograph. Other logos incorporate photos also, though it’s not a common treatment.

Nike’s Michael Jordan logo is based on a posed photo of the athlete executing a ballet move.
Nike’s Michael Jordan logo is based on a posed photo of the athlete executing a ballet move.

 

What a logo is not.

Can a clipart image be a logo?  Generally, no.

paint man clipart
A clipart provider typically prohibits the use of its images, such as this one from Adobe Stock, in logos, trademarks and branding.

 

Remember that a logo represents a company or its products or services. It serves to aid in identifying a company, making it recognizable apart from others. By definition it should be unique. A graphic image that is sold by a clipart supplier is legally available to anyone and cannot function as a unique identifier. For example, if a number of house painting companies all use the same stock image of a man with a paint brush on their signs and printed literature, the image fails to identify any one company. Rather, using the same image can give the appearance that the companies are related in some way, perhaps even all part of the same company. Does this not defeat the purpose of a having a logo? Further, none of these companies could legally own their logo if it contains clipart that they don’t own. What good is a logo if you cannot own it and protect it? Clipart companies do not normally sell complete ownership of their images. They are merely licensing them to users, usually for limited use. A company’s logo should be a design that belongs to the company, not a design that is just rented. If a company tries to exercise ownership of a design that incorporates clipart, it is a violation of many clipart agreements. Many clipart providers, in fact, specifically forbid the use of their images as part of a logo design or branding scheme.

Here is a link to iStock Photo’s license agreement forbidding use of its images in logo designs:

http://www.istockphoto.com/legal/license-agreement

A logo design that incorporates clipart would probably not be granted trademark registration in the US. It is not protectable as intellectual property.

Can a logo design use an image that is in the public domain? Well, how could such a design function as a unique identifier if it’s available to everyone? And again, how could it be protected? How could it receive trademark protection if it cannot be owned?

 

Does it really matter how we use the word logo?

Is using terminology correctly really so important? After all, the word logo is not really a legal term in the world of intellectual property. And its meaning has changed over the years. So what’s the big deal?

Think about this: as designers and makers of signs, we are actually in the business of communication. Good sign work involves effective communication, and should impart information clearly, and ideally, in a minimum amount of time. Signs that do not clearly communicate serve only to create problems, and in the end, waste a client’s money.

Clear communication is not just important for the messages on signs. It is necessary for business in general, at all levels and in every aspect. Using incorrect terminology in the sign and design world may not be life-threatening or create health risks like it does in some fields (healthcare, for example), but it can have detrimental effects in many areas leading to: lost productivity, duplication of effort, poor quality, increased costs, wasted time, client dissatisfaction, liability issues.

Communication between sign designer, sign builder and sign buyer should be free of confusion and clearly understood. The sign/design game has a unique vocabulary of terms that are often misunderstood by those outside the business. The continued success of the industry depends, at least in part, on clear communication among all the players.

Is trademark infringement really wrong?

When a company takes legal action over a perceived trademark infringement, it is sometimes accused of being a bully.

A pub in the St. Louis area began selling a drink with a name similar to a Starbucks drink name. So Starbucks sent a cease-and desist letter to the owner. In the world of intellectual property, a cease-and-desist letter is a routine first step in defending a trademark against infringement. These types of letters are sent all the time and are rarely newsworthy.

The sending of the Starbucks letter, however, was picked up by news media and the result was a little storm of bad publicity, with Starbucks being accused of heavy-handedly overreacting. Public sentiment favored the pub owner and the account read like a David and Goliath story.

My first reaction was, “but, trademark infringement is wrong, isn’t it?” My next thought was, “wait a minute, who is overreacting here?” A cease-and-desist letter is not heavy-handed. It’s a warning shot, the smallest warning shot possible, really. It is intended to stop an infringement at its earliest stage, to nip it in the bud, before costly litigation becomes necessary.

As I learned in intellectual property class at the community college, if a company does not vigorously defend its trademarks against even small infringements, it can have a harder time defending them later from more significant threats. Failure to defend a trademark in the early stages of infringement can weaken a trademark suit later in court.

But Americans love an underdog. A little guy is often perceived as the good guy and a big corporation is seen as the bad guy for no other reason than size. It’s a well-worn Hollywood stereotype: small is good, big is bad. The bigger, the badder.

On the other hand, might this little hoo-ha over a Starbucks trademark be more than just an example of the underdog effect at work? Could it also be an indication that many do not view intellectual property as legitimate property? And that infringement is not really wrong? I suspect so.

The truth is, intellectual property, be it a trademark or a copyright, is property in every sense of the word. It can be bought, sold or leased. It can be bequeathed, inherited, left in a will. In some cases it can have great value. It is worthy of protection, just like any piece of property that has value.

If someone broke into the offices of a large real estate company and stole a dozen “For Sale” signs, who would blame the company for prosecuting the thief? Would the company be accused of being a bully, of overreacting? Yet, to a company like ReMax Real Estate its trademarks are far more valuable than a few yard signs. That’s why it is known for aggressively pursuing infringers. A trademark may be one of a company’s most valuable assets. It has been estimated that the Coca-Cola logo is worth 70 billion dollars. Is it any wonder that a company would take measures to protect such a valuable asset?

I believe that many people do not fully appreciate that intellectual property really is property. A house or land, even a car is easier for them to think of as property, because you can see and touch these things. The loss of these is often difficult to recover from financially.

For a business, the loss of valued trademarks could inflict irreparable damage. It is no wonder that for certain types of willful trademark infringement in the US, the penalties can be in the millions of dollars.