Using someone else's logo

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  • Hi--someone at my college noticed that one of our sports teams had borrowed a pro sports team logo. They changed the colors but the design is otherwise much the same. We've been using the logo on signs, merchandise etc. Is there something we should do to seek permission? Do you always have to seek permission to borrow a logo, even if it's changed somewhat?

    Thanks for any advice.
  • Sounds like a risky situation. It may depend on how much you changed it, and how generic it was in the first place. But it's more trademark than copyright, so this might not be THE very best place to ask.
  • As Janet points out, I'm not sure, but I think that this might be a trademark issue as well.

    With copyright, this seems like it would be infringement to me. I would think that the repeated and commercial nature of the use described, without any favored aspect (although at a college, the use doesn't seem educational) would argue against fair use, so permission would be necessary for use.

    There are circumstances that might not require permission for using a logo. Some examples might be including it in a study of a corporation for a class presentation, or using it in parody or commentary.
  • This certainly is likely to be a trademark issue, which increases the risk somewhat. A trademark owner has a greater incentive to defend his or her mark, since, unlike with a copyright, a trademark can be lost if it is not defended. Also, trademark owners, especially sports teams, generate a good deal of income by licensing their mark(s), and permitting this kind of use would endanger that licensing market.

    I know of a college that adopted a mascot/logo that was very similar to that of a much better-known college. They were sent a cease-and-desist letter, with promise of litigation to follow, in very short order. The smaller school, which had adopted the mark later than the putative plaintiff, changed its mascot design.

    By the way, changing the logo slightly may or may not be enough to protect the secondary user. In copyright, the standard of infringement is "substantial similarity." In trademark it is "likelihood of consumer confusion." This latter is usually proved with surveys and expert testimony, which are very expensive. The result is that getting sued for trademark infringement can be financially devastating even if the defendant eventually wins. Far cheaper, in my opinion, to stop using the logo or seek a licensing agreement with the owner of the mark, if possible.
  • Late last year, the University of Wisconsin, Madison filed suit against Washburn on trademark infringement, even though Washburn had taken deliberate steps to alter their logo, minimizing any similarities:

    Washburn perspective:

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