Logos serve to represent a given organization or company through a visual image that can be easily understood and recognized. A logo generally involves symbols, stylized text or both. Logos are often created by a graphic artist in consultation with a company and marketing experts.
Three categories of logos exist and are often used in combination. These three categories are:
- Ideographs – freeform images that can be entirely abstract.
- Pictographs – symbolic, representational images.
- Logotypes – simple, textual representations, like a company’s initials.
As a key part of an organization’s identity, a logo must try to communicate the brand essence of a company or what the organization represents. This makes designing logos a critical job for a graphic designer and is often a creative process that is heavy in research and consultation. For international organizations, cultural differences in symbolism or the associations of colors must be considered.
A logo isn’t intended to explain or directly sell a company. Instead, its sole purpose is to identify the company in a way that is memorable and familiar. For example, Apple uses a bitten apple as its logo. The bitten apple does not explain what the company does or sells in any way, but it is distinctive and recognizable.
A logo is meant to be long-term as it is intended to become familiar to customers and promote brand loyalty. As a result, logos are generally not redesigned very often.
Simple logos are the ones people can recognize as soon as they see them. The simplest logos are the ones people remember the most.
A great logo should be simple enough to be able to be scaled down or up and still look good.
3. Memorable / Impactful
A great logo should be impactful. You want to capture your viewer’s attentions and leave an impression (a positive impression, hopefully).
A great logo should look equally good on any web device and on any kind of print material.
A great logo should be relevant to your practice. It has to have meaning that relates to the work you are doing.
A logo makes you stand out from the competition
Perhaps the most fundamental function of a logo is giving your business a unique mark that differentiates you from other businesses. This is especially important if your business has competition (which 99.9% of them do). Before you get a logo for your business you’ll want to research what your competitors’ look like so you can position yourself. Check out how the Cactus Dental logo separates themselves from the sea of cliché tooth industry by taking a feature unique to their geography and turning it into a toothbrush.
A logo identifies key information about your business
Along with demarcating your business, a good logo also provides your customer with some crucial information about your company: it can communicate the industry you exist in, the service you provide, your target demographic and your brand values.
For example, a company might use circuit imagery into their logo to show that they operate in the software industry. Or they might use a specific color to communicate they are committed to being green/environmental. Or they might use a stylish font to highlight that they are luxurious. Check out how Wild Hearts uses an image of a book with a heart in it to show that their business specializes in romance novels
When Do You Need Permission to Use a Logo?
A logo or trademark is any photograph, word, or symbol used to identify a brand, service, or product. You need permission to use a logo unless it is for editorial or information purposes, such as when a logo is used in a written article or being used as part of a comparative product statement.
Other than these two instances, you should never assume you can use a trademarked logo. A person or company should never use a trademark or logo without written permission from its owner. To get permission, write a letter to the trademark owner. Include a description of why you are asking and how the logo will be used. Third parties should never use someone else’s logo without a licensed agreement, including program and corporate logos.
In certain cases, a person or company involved in logo programs give third parties standing permission to use their trademarks. Depending on the company, the logo program may state any specific requirements and technological compatibility, company relationships, and program membership information. However, even then, third parties cannot use logos without a specific agreement.
More than that, trademarked companies often have resale policies for their products. A policy may indicate that the retailer or reseller can never change the trademark or corporate logo appearing on company products. Trying to replace a company’s logo with your own goes against the company’s written policy and is never allowed without a written agreement.
Why Is Getting Permission to Use a Logo Important?
First of all, getting permission to use a trademark or logo is important because doing so provides legal protection. A trademark naturally grants legal protection to its owner against anyone using it unlawfully. However, receiving permission gives you the legal right to go ahead and use it without worrying about any repercussions.
The United States trademark law as stated in the Lanham Act allows a non-owner of a registered trademark to make “fair use” of it without permission. Fair use includes using a logo in editorial content, among other situations.
You also don’t need to ask formal permission from a corporation to use its logo if the usage doesn’t create any impressions that the logo endorses or associates with another company. This scenario could result in a company complaint.
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule determining what “fair use” actually means. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) cannot decide if a certain use falls under the “fair” category or even advise on any trademark violations. When in doubt, it’s best to consult an experienced attorney to learn whether you should use a trademark or logo.
However, the Publishing Law Center states that, unlike a copyright, a trademarked logo’s ownership can last forever. Logos don’t even need to be registered as trademarks to be protected under current law. This means that using someone else’s logo without permission, even if it’s unregistered, is against the law.
When you decide that you need to use a trademark or logo, here are the steps you should follow:
- Determine if gaining permission is necessary
- Identify the logo’s owner
- Identify which rights you need to request
- Contact the owner with a description of your intended use and negotiate the required payment, if any
- Receive your trademark permission in writing
Reasons to Consider Getting Permission to Use a Logo
Since it’s difficult to know what falls under “fair use,” here are some straightforward reasons why you would want to request permission to use a trademark or logo:
- You want to use a third party’s logo or trademark to make and sell crafts. This will require a trademark license.
- The logo’s size, usage, or placement implies that you are affiliated with the trademark owner, or that you’re being endorsed by the company. This is a direct violation of the owner’s trademark rights.
- Commercial uses such as promotion, advertising, and marketing require written permission except in the cases of editorial or comparative advertising use. This can even include business-sponsored activities such as public presentations.
- Even though using the logo as part of a comparative statement in an advertisement, such as comparing one fast food restaurant’s hamburger to another, falls under “fair use,” comparative statements tend to provoke companies into legal action. You may want to have a lawyer review the advertisement before publishing it and make any necessary changes to avoid a worst-case scenario.
When Is Permission Not Required?
Other than using a trademark or logo for editorial purposes or as part of comparative product statements, you don’t need to ask permission if the logo’s use will educate, inform, or express opinion protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. This includes displaying a logo in a work of fiction, whether it’s a graphic novel or film.
As long as the fictional work doesn’t confuse the viewer as to who owns the trademark, using logos in fiction falls under fair use because it adds to a story’s realism. However, Hollywood has flipped this rule around by selling product placements to trademark owners as a means of advertisement, which has been a lucrative move.
Another gray area in trademark law is what’s known as trademark parodies. Generally speaking, you don’t need to request permission to imitate a trademark if you’re poking fun at it. One example is the parody newspaper The San Francisco Chomical, which parodies The San Francisco Chronicle. Offensive parodies can trigger lawsuits from the trademark or logo owner, so it’s important to weigh the consequences before going ahead with your trademark parody.
There are also circumstances where you can use media logos on your website without violating trademark rights and opening yourself up to infringement claims. Just remember that you cannot confuse customers into thinking you own the logo, so it’s best to display such trademarks with “as seen in” phrases.
In general, you won’t run into trademark parody problems if the parody:
- Doesn’t confuse consumers; they get the joke and know that it doesn’t come from the original trademark owner
- Doesn’t compete directly with the trademarked product
- Does parody the trademark or logo, which means it pokes fun specifically at the trademark
Examples of Ways Someone Can Use a Trademark without Permission
Competitors and individuals don’t need written permission to use a logo if the use falls under the following reasons:
- Descriptive use. Adjectives can be trademarked, but you might have a hard time complaining about competitive use. For example, if you trademark the name SPEEDY for your oil change services, but a competing business uses the phrase “speedy service,” that’s not considered a violation. A trademark does not give you monopoly rights over words.
- Comparative use. One of the most high-profile comparative uses was when the Pepsi Challenge pit Pepsi against its competitor Coca-Cola. As long as the trademark display is correct, any competitor can use your trademarked logo to compare benefits or effectiveness.
- Collateral use. If you own a lawn mower repair shop, you can legally advertise the fact you repair Brand X lawn mowers, even though you don’t make those lawn mowers or own the company’s logo. You just can’t suggest that you have a relationship with the company or that the company has approved of you.
- Nominative use. A person can use someone else’s trademark as a reference without infringing. For example, if you need to use the band name the Rolling Stones in a profit-making venture, you’re allowed to do so. That’s because there are only so many ways you can describe the legendary band. However, there are limitations. You can’t overuse the trademark or logo. So, if you tried to sell Rolling Stones t-shirts, you’re infringing, but you can organize an unauthorized fan club and sell memberships.
Copyright and Logos
In order for a work to have copyright protection, it must reach a requisite level of creativity. Many logos, however, do not. Since copyright can’t protect a name, colors or the design of the logo, most simple logos simply do not have the required level of creativity to be considered copyrightable. However, many ornate or artistic ones do.
And here lies the confusion with logos. Many of them actually qualify for both trademark and copyright protection. In fact, the entire Omega case hinges in part upon a logo stamped onto a watch being copyright protected (thus making the import of the watch a violation of the copyright).
In short though, if a logo would qualify for copyright protection as a piece of artwork separate from its use as a corporate identifier, it is copyright protected. Nothing in the law makes the two rights mutually exclusive so many logos can and are enforced using both trademark and copyright.
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