A logo, more formally a logotype, is a graphic symbol identifying a particular company or product. A well-designed logo helps a company identify itself and market its products, so businesses are protective of unauthorized logo use. If you want to use another business's logo, you'll have to ask for permission to use the logo on your website, in your store or on your advertising.

What Logos Are

A logo is an instant visual identifier that tells customers which company, product line or service they're dealing with. It may include several elements:

  • A special typeface or font.
  • Distinctive colors.
  • The company name, such as Burger King, or initials such as IBM.
  • Distinctive shapes or graphics. 

Well-known logos include:

  • Nike's swoosh symbol. 
  • Apple's image of an apple with a bite out of it.
  • YouTube's name with a TV screen image around the "tube."
  • Coca-Cola's elaborate calligraphy. 
  • The letters of Google's name in that specific typeface and mix of colors.

Logo vs. Trademark

Most companies trademark their logos, and design logos they can trademark. That gives the business the right to sue companies that use the logo without permission, or that market themselves with a knockoff design. This is only possible if the logo meets the requirements of trademark law:

  • It's distinctive, not generic. "Italian Restaurant" is too generic to trademark, but "Olive Garden" is a trademark. 
  • You actually use it in business. A logo on your business cards, stores, website and products sees active use; if you create it but dither about using it, you have no trademark claim.
  • It doesn't infringe on an existing trademark, for example, by looking or sounding too much alike. There are exceptions, such as if the trademark is in unrelated industries, for example, Domino Sugar and Domino's Pizza. 

If you have a logo that qualifies, you can file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to establish it as a trademark. This gives you considerable legal advantages if someone infringes on it. There are reasons some businesses don't file:

  • They don't know the law.
  • The logo infringes on a trademark in use elsewhere in the country. The company can still use its logo in a different region, relying on state trademark law for protection.
  • The company's not satisfied with the design and intends to change it. The Nike and Google logos went through multiple incarnations before settling. 
  • The company's not sure its product will be a success. Trademarking a logo takes close to a year, and costs a chunk of money. Sometimes it's not worth it. 

Even a logo that isn't trademarked may be protected at the state level. Don't assume you can use it freely.

Fair Use vs. Agreement For Use of Logo/Name

There are multiple reasons you might want to use another company's logo. Some of these require an agreement for use of logo/name to keep you from being sued. Others are considered a "fair use" of trademarked or copyrighted material without the owner's consent.

If, say, it's fair use to use the other company's logo on your website, you don't need a permission to use logo agreement. Fair use might apply if you're not doing anything that makes it seem you're part of the company or that the company endorses you. There are some specific fair uses in the law:

  • You're advertising that your product or service is better than the logo holder's, e.g. "AlltheAnswers is a simpler, more reliable search engine than Google."
  • You're using the trademark in a work of fiction.
  • You're parodying the company, for example satirizing Starbucks as "Barbucks."
  • You're using the logo in a nonfiction piece such as an article about marketing or a news story. 
  • You use a generic phrase that's part of the logo. One company marketed lipstick with a "Sealed With a Kiss" trademarked logo. It couldn't stop other companies using the common phrase in advertising. 

Permission To Use Logo Agreement

Some companies have a standing permission to use logo agreement that authorizes third parties to use a logo. Typical reasons for such logo programs include:

  • Showing the other company's system is technologically compatible with the logo-holder's.
  • Showing the third party conforms to specific requirements or rules.
  • The two companies are in a membership program or alliance together. 

Asking For Permission

If the need to use the logo isn't covered by fair use or a standing agreement, you need to ask for an agreement for use of logo/name. For example, you'd need permission to use a logo on your website if you want to advertise that your store sells Nike, or you use the Google logo to indicate you've installed that search engine.

In these situations, you need a written permission to use logo agreement. Don't just get a verbal okay from the company; if they change their mind later, a written agreement is your best defense. Your initial steps are to identify the logotype owner, then identify what rights you need to ask for.

Next, contact the logotype owner. You can find a sample letter requesting permission to use a logo online or draw up your own. What the logo owner will want to know is your name and business, and the reason for using the logo. If they're okay with what you want, they may request a fee, though it's often minimal.

Obey The Terms

The permission to use logo agreement may come with rules about how you display the logo. If you want to avoid trouble, follow them to the letter. Google, for example, has a string of rules about using its logo:

  • Google wants to see the full-color logo on a white background.
  • The logo can't be smaller than Google's minimum size requirement.
  • The amount of clear space around the logo should be at least equal to the height of the initial G.
  • You use a tagline at the bottom of the page acknowledging the logo is still trademarked by Google.

Google also has a list of what not to do with its logo:

  • You can't use the logo in any way that implies Google endorses your company or website.
  • Don't use any of the older versions of the Google logo.
  • Don't change the colors or modify the design in any way.
  • Don't use the logo in a phrase or sentence.
  • Don't do anything that links the Google logo with your own. 
  • You can't put Google's logos on your own merchandise or swag. 

Similar rules will appear in most agreements.

Use Without An Agreement

If you deploy another company's logo without a permission to use logo agreement, you're taking a legal risk. Depending on the circumstances, you could be hit with a lawsuit, damages or a court order to stop selling your merchandise or to remove the logo from your website.

The first step is usually a cease-and-desist letter from the logo's owner. These happen even if your use is clearly fair use: Olive Garden demanded one blogger reviewing Olive Garden's food eliminate all use of "Olive Garden" in text, keywords or metatags. After the dispute went public, the company dropped the demands and said the request came from an automated trademark-protection bot.

Fair use is a doctrine with blurry boundaries, so be careful about claiming it as a defense. If you're not sure you're on safe ground, either write to the company for authorization or talk to an attorney about the limits of fair use.