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What Is the Difference Between a Logo and a Trademark?

By February 18, 2021
Person picking business logos

Wondering what the difference between a logo and a trademark is? While the two have similarities, and indeed can have some overlap, they are distinct concepts. This is especially true from a legal rights perspective. 

What Is the Difference Between a Logo and a Trademark?

A trademark is a distinguishable and recognizable sign, design, or expression that identifies specific products or services of a particular source as distinct from others. 

A logo is a graphic sign, mark, or symbol used to identify a particular source. It is fair to say that a logo is a type of trademark.

People discussing what is the difference between a logo and a trademarkWhat is a Trademark?

Under United States intellectual property law, specifically 15 U.S.C. section 1127, a trademark is:

any word, name, symbol, or design, or any combination thereof, used in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from those of another and to indicate the source of the goods.

There are two main requirements for something to qualify as a trademark:

  1. It must be used in commerce; 
  2. It must be distinctive. 

To qualify under the use in commerce requirement, the trademark must be used in connection with specific goods or services in interstate commerce. This use must take place before a trademark application is submitted, or else it must be about to be used and used within commerce within six months of trademark registration. 

To qualify as distinctive, a logo must be able to distinguish the particular goods or services from those that may be similar. Trademarks can either be inherently distinctive on their own, or else they can acquire distinctiveness through exclusive right to use of the trademark over a period of time. 

There is a spectrum of distinctiveness for trademarks:

  1. Arbitrary: An inherently distinctive trademark in that it uses common words in an unconventional way. A prime example of this is the company Apple. While an apple is a type of fruit, it is typically not associated with selling computer products and is thus distinctive. 
  2. Fanciful: An inherently distinctive trademark in that it is made up and only used in association with specific goods or services. Examples of this are the brands Kodak or Nikon.
  3. Suggestive: A trademark that has wording suggesting characteristics of the underlying goods or services without actually saying the characteristic outright.  Examples of this include Airbus for airplane travel or Netflix to describe an internet movie streaming service. 
  4. Descriptive: These are not inherently distinctive trademarks, but can acquire trademark status over time by continued use. Examples of a descriptive trademark include Bank of America or Sun-Away Sunscreen. 

Thus, it is important that a logo is not confusingly similar to another logo for similar goods or services. The more distinctive your logo is, the greater legal protection you will have in using your logo and excluding other businesses from using a confusingly similar logo to yours. 

Person picking business logosWhat Is a Logo?

A business logo is a graphic depiction that represents the underlying business name at hand. Logos become the main, underlying symbol by which the public recognizes a business and develops an association between the company’s logo and feelings of goodwill. 

Because of this, logos can be extremely important marketing tools for your business and its name. It can have broad use in that it can appear on stationery, within brick and mortar stores, in advertisements, and on goods that are sold by your company. 

By utilizing your logo as broadly as possible, you can develop increased recognition for your company by the increased use of your logo. 

For example, Mcdonald’s has built an enduring and extremely recognizable logo through its golden arches. McDonald’s no longer needs to write out its business name. Rather, the golden arches symbol alone is recognizable by the public and is instantly associated with the company, its name, and its products.

Can a Logo Be a Trademark?

A logo is not automatically a trademark, but it can acquire trademark rights. Logos can acquire trademark rights in a couple of different ways. 

First, your business can submit a trademark application for your logo with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to gain federal trademark registration for the logo. Federal trademark registration is often beneficial for your company because it will provide your logo with increased legal protection within your field. 

Federal trademark registration provides you with priority intellectual property rights over your logo. It means you can pursue legal action against any competitor that tries to use your logo or something similar in association with their own goods or services. 

Once you have intellectual property rights over your logo, you can exclude others from using the same for their company. If a competitor uses a logo that is identical or similar to your logo, you can seek to stop them from using that logo. 

To stop others from using your logo, it typically begins with writing cease and desist letters. If this does not stop the issue, you can bring an action against them in federal court. This can result in acquiring damages that you may have endured due to this competition, and often can also result in an injunction which stops the other business from using that infringing logo. 

Lawyer speaking to a virtual meetingEven if you do not choose to register your logo with the USPTO, you will still acquire some common law rights to your logo as you use the logo in commerce in connection with your business. Common law rights are those afforded by underlying state laws. 

Essentially, they provide you with intellectual property rights to your logo to use your logo within your company’s specific geographic region for your particular goods or services. 

How to Develop Your Logo for Trademark Status

If you want to make sure your logo will obtain trademark status with the USPTO, there are a few things to keep in mind. Make sure your logo is as distinctive as possible, especially as compared to other logos within your company’s specific field or industry. 

As explained above, the more unique the logo is, the better chance you have of getting trademark registration and distinguishing your logo from others. 

Next, make sure that you are using your logo as much as possible within commerce. This means it is a great idea to print your logo on any product you produce, on letters or email that you send out, and in association with your offices or storefront. 

Trademark Registration

Trademark registration with the USPTO requires you to submit an application through the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS).  

Once you have submitted your application and paid the filing fees, you will work with a USPTO attorney who is reviewing and approving your trademark application. Ultimately, your trademark will receive a certificate of registration from the USPTO once it has been approved.