Intellectual property, if one sees it in the context of law, it is as simple as it gets. Patents are used to protect unique inventions from getting copied or reproduced. Thing such as taglines, brand names etc are catered by Trademark. Copyright means creative and aesthetic works of art fixed into a physical medium of expression.
AIGA, the professional association for design defines copyright as:
The exclusive right to control reproduction and commercial exploitation of your creative work. Copyright protects any kind of artwork, including illustrations, photographs and graphic design. Except under certain circumstances (see “work made for hire” section), you own the copyright in your work at the moment you create it in a “fixed form of expression”. A fixed form of expression is any tangible medium that can be perceived by humans, including traditional forms—such as paintings, sculptures, writings—and new forms that require a machine to perceive (e.g., GIF files, CDs, websites).
If this definition is scrutinized, we can use it as a yardstick as to what problems can arise when logos are viewed through the eyes of a skeptic.
Legal Jargon is complicated, and to explain this in layman’s terms, when you create a logo in a fixed form of expression, you own it. It is now stable in your operational limits. But there seems to be a high level of ambiguity surrounding these concepts mostly owing to vague knowledge of all variables involved.
Logos are copyrightable; they are strictly the property of their owner, however the typeface isn’t copyrighted. Logically, logos are unique and are more profound, whereas typefaces are just the canvas on which a logo can be made. Concept segregation isn’t the real problem, but the complexity lies in the fact that a logo will have typeface design. The typeface design can be used, bought or sold as it a useful article as per American Laws, but the professional logo design sees itself in the restricting domain of copyright. So technically speaking, a logo design cannot be sold or used by any other party than the owner as an adaptive evolution of the typeface itself. As the logo is finally put to use, it assumes a life of its own, it ceases to be introspected under the law which governs typefaces.
The line is even more blurred when one envisions the fact that Logos, depending on their attributes, can fall under the domain of trademark, copyright or sometimes both.
Using the aforementioned information as a stepping stone, what we can deduce is that if a logo is an ‘original concept’, it can be copyrighted, and even if it’s not, it can still be protected under trademark. But these are murky water, as often in the case of things with acute aesthetic attributes. Most often than not, it depends on the owner of the subsequent logo, as to where the organization wants to draw a line when the allowance and independence regarding the reproductive domains of a logo are involved. If it just wants to specify itself as the primary user of the logo in the market, using it as a symbol of brand entity, then it can use trademark as the more appropriate protective umbrella.
In terms of brand representation, logos converge, divulge and assimilate trademark and copyright depending on their type.
The owner and the designer should know the difference between reference images and downright reproduction of an existing logo, which of course is not the right way to about.