Cartoon Logos 101: Copyright & Trademarks

So you’ve taken the step to have your very own custom cartoon logo or character mascot created. What do you need to do to legally protect it?

This post will cover some general information about copyrights and trademarks as they apply to your cartoon character mascot design or cartoon logo design.

You’ll learn the differences between a copyright and a trademark, which you should use for your cartoon character or cartoon logo, how to go about secure one or the other, and some “best practices” tips as well. I’ll also tell you how to get that cool “c in a circle” copyright symbol “©” from your Mac or PC keyboard!

Of course, I need to preface this post with the disclaimer that I am not a lawyer. You should always discuss these topics with a specialist in intellectual property law before making any decisions.

I Need To Trademark My Cartoon Logo, Right?

The first thing clients usually ask me after I finish creating a cartoon logo for them is “how do I trademark my logo”? In short, you don’t trademark a logo. Or a cartoon character.

Trademarks are typically reserved for words, and this includes the name of a product or the name of a business. Trademarks are also specifically focused on a particular service or product. For example, let’s say you want to trademark the product name “Hang Time” for a skydiving helmet.

Your registration with the trademark office would be for the plain-text words “Hang Time”, and you would need to also specifically choose the category of goods that you want to associate these words with, in this case “helmets”.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a trademark specifically protects “words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.”

The word “designs” probably throws people off. In this case it would be the Apple “apple” icon, the Nike “swoosh”. They are specifically relating that symbol to specific products (or services).

Most likely you’ll want to first trademark your company or product name, and then copyright the full illustrated logo.


What most clients are really looking for is a copyright. The U.S. Copyright Office defines a copyright as “a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”

A copyright protects “original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” Copyright does not protect “facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”

A great example is the use of the Pink Panther character by Owens Corning. The name “Pink Panther” is trademarked, but the character is copyrighted.

Here’s the interesting thing about the copyright law: a copyright exists the moment a creative work is created. Nothing to file, no forms to fill out — bingo, it’s copyrighted. So why would one bother with filing?


Infringement. It’s a terrible word to us artists, and it’s one of the big reasons to register your copyright. If you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement (and be awarded monetary damages), you’re going to need that registration.

Make Your Mark

But even before you register, there are some “best practice” tips you can use to specifically let people you’re claiming the copyright. In the case of visual artwork, the U.S. Copyright Office, in their “Copyright Basics” PDF says the notice should contain all the following three elements:

  1. The symbol © (the letter C in a circle), or the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”; and
  2. The year of first publication of the work. In the case of compilations or derivative works incorporating previously published material, the year date of first publication of the compilation or derivative work is sufficient. The year date may be omitted where a pictorial, graphic, or sculp­tural work, with accompanying textual matter, if any, is reproduced in or on greeting cards, postcards, stationery, jewelry, dolls, toys, or any useful article; and
  3. The name of the owner of copyright in the work, or an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative designation of the owner.

Example: © 2008 John Doe

Note that these are not required, but I think the best way to go is to “put your stamp on it” so people can’t come back later and claim they had no idea. Even though according to the law you don’t need to, this is just one extra step to let the uninformed know you’re staking your claim.

Register Your Copyright

So now you know that you need a copyright and not a trademark, and you’re tagging your artwork with the proper copyright notices — what’s next? You’ll want to head over to the Copyright Office’s online registration, read over the documentation and get started on your filing.

Copyright Symbols on your Mac or PC Keyboard

The best way to use the copyright symbol is to know how to access it on your keyboard.

To enter the “c in a circle” copyright symbol (©), Mac users need to hold down the Option key and then press the “G” key. PC users need to hold down Ctrl and Alt at the same time and then press the “C” key.

Further Information

I’d highly suggest visiting the official government websites for the Trademark Office and the Copyright Office for in-depth info.