A basic understanding of copyright law can help designers understand when they may be committing copyright infringement or when another designer may be infringing on their copyright. This quick guide to copyright for designers is by no means exhaustive but serves as a useful introduction to the murky world of copyright law.

So, what is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that protects the work of authors, musicians, artists and designers. Under U.S. copyright laws, other designers are prohibited from copying or manipulating your work and passing it off as their own. Doing so is known as copyright infringement.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works including poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, architecture, and most graphic design. However, it does not protect facts, ideas, systems or methods of operation.

Hold on a sec’! What do you mean by “most” graphic designs?

Whether or not copyright applies to logo designs is a gray area, judged on a case-by-case basis. For a work to have copyright protection, it must reach a certain level of creativity and originality. Copyright doesn’t expand to things like names, colors, typefaces, geometric designs and familiar symbols.

Logos are not copyrightable unless they are uniquely artistic and/or ornate. However, keep in mind that even though a logo is not protected by copyright, it can still be protected by trademark laws.

Shepard Fairey "HOPE" controversy
Shepard Fairey “HOPE” controversy: Stevesimular (via Flickr)

Is modeling a design after a photograph considered copyright infringement?

Yes, photographs are protected as copyrighted works and cannot be freely copied. Translating a copied image into a different medium may still be considered copyright infringement. The Barack Obama “HOPE” poster made by Shepard Fairy during the 2008 US presidential election is a perfect example of how complicated things can get surrounding a valuable copyright.

Is using software to manipulate another person’s image copyright infringement?

Yes, if you manipulate a digital copyrighted image with software like Photoshop, Illustrator, etc., you likely have committed copyright infringement.

What if the new image isn’t exactly the same?

“Substantially similar” works are not allowed under U.S. copyright law. If someone can clearly see that one image is based on the other, then it probably is a copyright infringement.

Does copyright apply to free clip art/stock images available on the web?

Yes. Many of these images are copyrighted and illegal to use despite what the website they are hosted on may claim. Better safe than sorry, stay away from that stuff!

When does work become copyrighted?

Copyright is automatically attached when work is created. The designer does not have to submit any materials or application and the design does not need to have the © symbol to be protected by copyright law.

What are the consequences for violating U.S. Copyright law?

Violators of U.S. copyright laws may be sued in Federal district court and may be required to pay substantial fines. In some cases, there may also be criminal liability.

How do I avoid committing copyright infringement?

Understand the law

Intellectual property rights are a difficult and confusing area of the law, but its definitely worth getting familiar with the basics. Check out the United States Copyright Office’s website for more information, especially Copyright Basics (August 2011).

Stay away from Third Party Images

Work claimed to be free and clear of copyright protections may not be, so it’s best to stay away from them.

If you must use third party images, be sure to prime yourself with our article, “A field guide to stock image licenses (and how to protect yourself).” It explains the general liability, different types of licenses, and key terms you’ll need to use these images in a 100% legal way.

Be creative

Focus on creating original work while staying conscious of the fine line between inspiration and copying.

What should I do if someone steals my work?

Photo: Sam UL (via Flickr)

Document the case

Take screenshots or photos of the stolen work and collect the documentation that proves you created it originally. It’s helpful to have a record of drafts and any publication dates.

Contact the person

Send a brief email that politely asks the person to take down your work. Being caught red-handed is usually enough to motivate someone to take down your work. If that does not work, then send a “cease and desist” letter.

File a DMCA Takedown Notice and consider legal action

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act was created to help people protect their intellectual property on the internet. By filing a DMCA Takedown Notice you can have the website which your content appear blocked from search results. If you feel that the copyright infringement was financially costly, you may want to consult a lawyer and consider taking legal action.


Remember, copyright law is very complicated. Protection of intellectual property rights varies greatly from country to country and if you are dealing with a serious copyright issue you should do thorough research and consider seeking legal advice from a copyright lawyer.

Note: Briana James contributed to this article. All other logos and trademarks are the property of the respective trademark owners. Header image: opensource.com (via Flickr)