Copyright, Trademark, and Church Symbols

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Using a logo is one way churches can distinguish themselves. As a “branding” tool a logo offers a visual sense of identity and opens up a range of possibilities for promoting the church and potentially adding a revenue source through sales of merchandise bearing the logo. Just like every other organization, a church can acquire intellectual property rights over its logo design, and also needs to be mindful of how its logo might infringe upon the rights of others.

Logos and trademark

Trademark law provides protection for words, phrases, and drawings (among other things) that are used in commerce to identify the source of goods or services. Many common religious symbols, like crosses, the Star of David, or the Buddhist eight-spoked wheel, are in the public domain and therefore outside the realm of trademark restrictions. Many churches incorporate these symbols into their logos, while adding additional elements. Those additional elements are what make a logo into a potentially trademarkable design.

In isolation a logo is not a trademark. To be protected, a logo also needs to be used in commerce. What constitutes “use” is a complex, technical question, but in a church context it might include putting the logo on church flyers and other printed materials, on the side of a church building, or on the church’s website. Once in use, a logo can be defended in court even without going through additional steps to register it with state or federal trademark registries.

Whether registration is the right choice for your church will depend on the church’s willingness and ability to pay the costs associated with it. A federal trademark registration can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 depending on its complexity. A major advantage of federal registration is that it gives public notice of the church’s exclusive rights to a logo. It also allows the owner of a registered mark to seek extra damages from an infringer.

Logos and copyright

Copyright law can also come into play when a church’s logo is used in an unauthorized way. The Satanic Temple recently sued Netflix for using its copyrighted statue of Baphomet in a show produced by the company. The unconventional nature of the case shouldn’t distract other churches from taking note of how the symbols of their church could be misappropriated for commercial use by others.

Copyright typically comes into play when someone uses another person’s creation in a published work, whether that’s a book, website content, or a film. Like trademark, the details of copyright are complex. If a church’s logo appears in a film as an incidental element—for example, because a scene is shot across the street from the church, which briefly comes into the frame in the background—a copyright claim might not be warranted. But if the logo is incorporated into the work, so that viewers might be confused about its authorship, the church might have a good claim to seek damages and to prevent ongoing misuse.

The Church Law Center of California serves churches and other nonprofits

Developing a logo can cost money and time. Defending it from misuse by others is important not just to protect that investment, but also to guard the reputation of the church from being shaped by outsiders who may not share the church’s goals and values. The Church Law Center of California helps churches with all aspects of their governance and organization and can assist your church with these questions. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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