So you want to spice up your website by dropping in a logo … someone else’s logo.
You better make sure that you’re not violating the owner’s trademark or committing copyright infringement. If you “upload” a logo illegally, the owner might “unload” on you legally.
First, let’s define our terms.
A “trademark” protects any word, name, symbol or graphic design (or combination) used to identify and distinguish the goods of one producer (person, company or organization) from those of another, and to indicate the source of the goods. A trademark does not have to be registered (though registered marks are easier to protect than non-registered marks), but must be distinctive and used in commerce.
A “copyright” protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. Copyrights also don’t have to be registered (they exist from the moment the work is created), but registration does make it much easier for owners to successfully sue to protect against copyright infringement in court.
Something called, “The Doctrine of Fair Use,” affects whether reproducing copyrighted material constitutes infringement. If the material is used in criticism, commentary, reporting, instruction or research, it is usually considered “fair use.” Four factors are weighed in determining whether a particular use is fair:
- The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.
- The nature of the copyrighted work.
- The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.
- The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.
Obviously, it’s a complex subject. Especially since logos — which are graphic designs falling under the trademark category — can also be copyrighted.
In general, if you’re going to use someone else’s logo on your website, it’s best to secure the owner’s permission. If you don’t want to contact the owner, or are convinced that your usage is “fair,” make sure you don’t use the logo in a way that could mislead site visitors into believing that the logo’s owner produced or sponsored your material.
Logos visually convey information more completely than words alone. But, you need to make sure that the information is conveyed legally, and in a manner the owner approves of.
Simply put, when in doubt, ask for permission.
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