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. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should I use a TM symbol when using a logo for informational purposes?

No, it's not necessary to use the TM symbol, although it is considered good etiquette. You can also distinguish a trademark by italicizing or capitalizing it instead of using the TM symbol.

On the other hand, if you use a trademark in a commercial context, such as in a product manual or advertisement, you should place the TM symbol next to the trademark. Still, you only need to do this if the trademark is federally registered.

  • Should I include a disclaimer when using a logo?

Even if a trademark or logo falls under fair use, it's often a good idea to attach a disclaimer identifying the logo and stating that you are not associated with or sponsored by the trademark owner.

  • What happens if I use a logo in my marketing materials without requesting permission?

Trademarks work somewhat differently than copyrights in that merely printing someone else's logo doesn't automatically mean you've infringed upon the owner's rights. Most logos are, in fact, not protected by copyright law. Still, trademark infringement could result in a lawsuit to stop the infringement.

  • Can I use company logos on my blog?

Yes, you can use logos on your blog, but keep in mind that photos and images online are subject to stricter copyrightlaws. It's much worse to grab any photo off Google Images for your blog than it is to use a company's logo in an article.

To avoid copyright infringement on your blog, search for images in the public domain. You can also snag Creative Commons (CC) licensed images as long as you abide by the type of license specified, which may need you to give creator attribution.

When using a logo or trademark on your blog or website, be sure to check brand guides. Most companies offer brand guidelines stating how you can use their intellectual property without infringing. For example, if you use Twitter, you agree to Twitter's terms of use, which include how to properly incorporate the brand. Even if you don't use a particular service, you should still review the brand guidelines to see what you can and cannot do with a logo or trademark.

  • Can I use government logos without permission?

U.S. law forbids the use of government agency logos without written permission. While certain logos are not copyrightable, they're still protected under similar laws to trademark laws. For instance, you cannot use the Central Intelligence Agency logo without permission to prevent the appearance that the CIA has endorsed your work or views.

Steps to File

Getting permission to use a trademark is a simple process. In general, you should follow this procedure:

  1. Determine if permission is needed and whether the material is protected under law. Ask yourself if your usage would violate the law.
  2. Identify the trademark owner.
  3. Identify the rights needed.
  4. Contact the owner. Receiving permission may mean negotiating a fee, but the fee is often minimal.
  5. Receive your written permission agreement. Never rely on an oral agreement, as this can leave you open to misunderstandings and disputes.

When in doubt, a trademark lawyer can help you cover all your bases. This will make sure you're not infringing on anyone's rights. Whether you're seeking permission to use a logo or you want to register your own logo to receive legal protections, the experienced attorneys at UpCounsel can help.