In theory, a corporate logo should stand just as good a chance at being eligible for copyright registration and protection as any other kind of visual art. Section 913.1 of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices expressly provides that a logo may be registered if it satisfies “the requisite qualifications for copyright,” that is, if it “embodies some creative authorship in its delineation and form.”
But in practice, getting a logo registered for copyright protection can be tough. Many of the characteristics of well-known corporate logos don’t figure into the Copyright Office’s analysis at all, such as consumer recognition, commercial success, artistic merit and symbolic meaning. Additionally, many of the design elements most typical of corporate logos are deemed by the Compendium to be insufficiently creative, such as common shapes, typographical symbols (e.g., the symbols on your QWERTY keyboard) and simple color variations.
The Vodafone “SpeechMark”
Vodafone’s “Speechmark” logo ran into several of these obstacles. Originally designed for Vodafone by the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising firm, the logo (which was reportedly meant to symbolize voice communications) was introduced to the public in 1997. In about 2017, Vodafone sought trademark and copyright protection for the Speechmark in the United States. The logo was described in Vodafone’s trademark application as “a red apostrophe sign inside a white circle,” and it was registered earlier this year by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The copyright application didn’t fare as well. The registration specialist found that the logo design contained only a de minimis degree of creativity because it consisted of nothing more than two common shapes (a circle and a square), a single letter of text (the apostrophe), and a couple “trivial” color and shading choices.
Vodafone appealed to the Copyright Office Review Board (CORB). On appeal, Vodafone argued (apparently contradicting its trademark application) that the symbol at the center of the logo was not an “apostrophe” at all; rather, it was a “ballooned droplet” that was “readily distinguishable from an apostrophe, both in the stylization of its curvature and its orientation.”
CORB was not impressed by this argument. First, the orientation of the symbol didn’t matter because, whichever way it faced, it was a mere typographical symbol: an apostrophe if facing one way and a open quotation mark if facing the other way. Second, even though the symbol was “slightly more bulbous” than a typical apostrophe or quotation mark, CORB found that it was nevertheless “instantly recognizable” as one.
CORB also agreed that the remaining elements, including a common circle and square, two colors and some minor shading, were not eligible for copyright protection. Neither was the combination and arrangement of these elements: simply nesting the shapes and symbols within each other was not considered sufficiently creative by CORB.