Common Sense Should Prevail in
Use of Logos on Campaign Signs

Dear CO-STAR:

I'm running for student senate. One of the issues of my campaign is on-campus dining. I think our school should offer more alternatives, should bring national franchises into the union and elsewhere—like Subway or Pizza Hut. To make my point, I've used some company logos (again things like Pizza Hut, Subway and a few others) on my campaign signs. The guy at Kinko's said I could get in trouble for using the logos without permission. Will I?

Adam, Sophomore, Private College or University, Georgia

Adam:

Is your use of those logos illegal? Technically, probably yes. Are they going to come after you for it? I highly doubt it.

Here's the deal:

Those logos are the companies' trademarks. A trademark is a word, symbol or other device that distinguishes one company's goods from another's. Trademarks can be almost anything, from a logo to a distinctive combination of colors or packaging to an architectural design. The Playboy Bunny, the Nike swoosh, Tony the Tiger, the distinctive look of a McDonalds restaurant, even the three notes in the NBC jingle are trademarks.

Trademarks are, technically, property. So just like the owner of a house can keep everyone else out, owners of trademarks are entitled to exclusive use of the mark and can prohibit others from using it—especially if there is a likelihood of confusion, mistake, or deception on the part of the public. In other words, if a consumer could be tricked into thinking that they're dealing with the owner's company based on the mark, then it is infringement.

In your case, I doubt that anyone would think that you're planning on selling sandwiches or pizzas. So there's no chance of direct confusion. But, if the fine people at the corporate headquarters of one of these places really wanted to push the issue, they could make a pretty solid argument that the posters imply that Pizza Hut or Taco Bell or whoever else is on your flyers has endorsed you as a candidate. Based on that, they may be able to stop you.

But I think this is one of the rare instances where common sense prevails over the black letter of the law. First, is anyone from the legal department at one of these going to happen across one of these signs? I'm betting no. And then, even if they do, do you think they're going to object to your fight to bring them to your campus? Definitely not.

So, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with the Kinko's guy. I think you're in the clear.

The material in this column addresses general legal issues only; is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such; and may or may not be appropriate to a specific situation. Laws and procedures change frequently and are subject to differing interpretations. This column is not intended to create, and does not create, a lawyer-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.

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