Many organizations operate on a shoestring marketing budget.  They rely on word-of-mouth and create their own advertising, fundraising, and brand awareness promotions.  Unfortunately, the DIY approach to marketing can unintentionally lead to copyright and trademark infringement.  So, how do you build your brand without breaking the law?

First, a quick lesson on copyright and trademark.

If you only have a vague notion of what copyright and trademark law are, don’t skip this part.  Copyright and trademark are called “intellectual property”.  Unlike tangible property (something you can touch) or real property (land), intellectual property is something created by the mind.

Intellectual property law gives the owner (you) the legal right to the exclusive use and control of your creative works and your brand.  You can buy, sell, and license your copyrights and trademarks.

Copyrights and trademark are all around us.   We see it in logos, slogans, book jackets, books, blogs, artwork, and  more.  (See my article on 9 Surprising and Weird Things you can Trademark).  Once you recognize it, you will see it everywhere – including in your own business or nonprofit.

How to Build Your Brand Without Breaking the Law

There are many types of infringement, but here are some common examples of infringement you want to avoid.

Don’t use someone’s business name or product name 

Before you launch a new venture or product, find out whether someone else already registered a trademark for that name.  You should consult an attorney for this.  Trademark searches involve more than looking for exact matches.  US trademark law also prevents you from using names that are confusingly similar to a registered trademark.

Save time and money with a quick search performed by an attorney.  You do not want to invest in marketing materials, product development, and signage only to learn you cannot use that name.

Get permission to use photos and artwork

It is so simple to go to the internet and find the perfect image for your marketing materials. Unfortunately, you cannot snap that image onto your marketing materials or website unless you have the owner’s consent.

Sometimes you can license or obtain permission to use the image.  If not, you will have to find another image.  Just because an image is easily available on the internet doesn’t mean that you have the right to use it.

Never plagiarize

Remember that word from high school?  Written, visual, and audio works enjoy copyright protection upon publication, even publication on the internet.

This means you cannot plagiarize or “borrow” someone else’s written words, be it a blog post, book, brochure, or whatever. There are also instances in which quotes and parodies can infringe upon someone else’s copyright.

The same thing goes for music. “Borrowing” snippets of music for your ad campaign without consent and without payment could cause you a legal and financial headache.  Don’t “borrow”.

Don’t even attempt to claim a Fair Use Doctrine exception unless you know what it is.

Either license the work or create your own written content and music.

Copycats are not flattering

Logos, slogans, and product designs can enjoy intellectual property rights.

If you design your own logo, slogan, or product, you should consult with an attorney to ensure you do not violate someone else’s property rights.

You could lose a lot of time and money having to redesign your logo or slogan and replace all of your marketing materials, should you be found to infringe on another’s property.

Avoid copyright and trademark infringement

You have a duty to understand basic intellectual property law.  At the very least, be aware of your basic legal responsibilities and know when to ask questions.

These are just a few common examples. ​There are many, many more ways to infringe (accidentally or intentionally) on another’s intellectual property.  It is a smart investment to seek professional advice regarding your marketing materials.

Not convinced yet?   Ponder this: if you spent a lot of time and money developing a protectable work, wouldn’t you be upset to find others using it, distributing it, and even making money from it without your consent?

Lastly, remember to take the steps necessary to also protect your trademarks and copyrights.  Attorney Christine Kuntz at Concerto Law regularly helps businesses, freelancers, and nonprofits register trademarks and copyright.  Call us at (814) 706-1288.