May I ever use a stock graphic in a logo?
March 4, 2006 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Clients want me to use stock graphics in their logos. May I do so, if I warn them that the resulting logo may not be trademarkable?

I'm a web designer whose clients have recently begun asking for logos. I'm nervous about posting these questions, because when I've asked advice of graphic designers in the past the answers have gone like "that is terrible practice, leave the designing to professionals, your lousy designing will actually physically kill your client," &etc.

I understand that ideally a logo is an entirely original creation, and I'm not looking for a design lecture. I am looking for some help understanding the basics of the subject. My questions:

1. I have been making logos for small companies, usually one-person home businesses. They often send me stock images that they want to use in their logos. These folks are not Nike or Coca-Cola, and they may not care that the resulting logo can't be trademarked. Can I use the stock image, if I remind the client that anyone can use their graphic?

2. This page makes it sound as though using clip art is a-OK as long as the client doesn't care about trademarking. Aesthetic concerns aside, is there a reason that the "Deer Creek" example on that page couldn't trademark just the text part of the logo? If not, why not?

3. I'm really confused about the basic concept here: the importance of complete uniqueness in a logo. Why is it okay for more than one logo to use the same typeface or the same colors, but not the same graphic? (Or is it not okay for two logos in the world to use Futura...?!) Couldn't five different logos incorporate the same basic shape - say, a shield? Then why couldn't they all use the same stylized flower?

4. What counts as a "logo"? Why is a "logo" subject to special rules - is it just because of the trademark issue? My favorite stock graphics website, for example, has a rule that the graphics cannot be used in a "logo", but you can use the art pretty much everywhere else. Is this to protect the clip art's creator, or the company with the logo? If it's for the creator, why does the artist care if their stylized flower is right next to the name of the company as opposed to 300 pixels away?

Wow, those were more questions than I thought I had. Thanks in advance for your patience with my newbie questions, super-professional graphic designers.
posted by lemuria to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think they probably could trademark the design even if it did incorporate stock images. A trademark isn't going to be terribly important to a small company though. The larger concern would be what using stock images does to branding efforts.

Ideally, a logo will be a neutral image into which the company can pour their brand identity. The problem is that most clients (in my experience) don't want a glass they can pour an identity into. They want a loud speaker that shouts out what the company does, so a fishing store will want to use a fish.

Again though, you're dealing with a small company that isn't going to invest very much into branding anyway, so the important thing is -- is the client happy. A secondary concern for you is -- is this design good so that I feel good about the work and can get future clients with it. That's all you really need to worry about and the client being happy is much more important than having a portfolio piece if it comes to a choice.
posted by willnot at 1:30 PM on March 4, 2006

I would first try and convince them not to use a photo in the logo itself. There are many applications where a photo won't work... for instance, on anything larger than a website header (say if they want to put their logo on a banner, or on if they get an office later on and want to put it on the door). Even if they only have a website for now. Are they going to want to invest in a redesign and rebranding down the road?

You can also tell them that as "stock" photos, that those photos could be used anywhere else: In an ad for venereal diseases, in their competitor's ads, etc.

One of my teachers in art school said he used the VD trick a lot to get clients to pay to have custom photography done.

I hope I don't come across as too much of a snobby design guy, but there are a lot of good reasons for why we act the way we do sometimes.
posted by chimmyc at 3:42 PM on March 4, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks. To clarify: stock graphics, not photos.
posted by lemuria at 3:47 PM on March 4, 2006

Anything can be a trademark - words, pictures, drawings, even sounds or smells. What matters is that your trademark is unique and customers recognize your mark as indicative of your goods/services.

The danger in using stock graphics is that someone else out there in the world might be using the same stock graphic for similar goods or services. This is the kind of thing that leads to lawsuits.

posted by falconred at 6:35 PM on March 4, 2006

I used a logo for my technical writing business that was a combination of two pieces of clip art. I didn't bother trademarking it, but there was no reason I couldn't have. What matters is that the logo is distinctive and unique.
posted by kindall at 12:50 AM on March 5, 2006

Clip art or stock images per se shouldn't prevent one from gaining trademark protection in their logo. However, a trademark is an indication of the origin of the goods and services. If that clip art image is used by others, especially for similar goods and services it can prevent your clients from gaining trademark rights and could cause infringement problems. Also, what is in the licensing agreement which comes with the clip art or stock image? It most likely affects copyrights using the image, rather than trademark rights. These issues are not straightforward and resolution is going to be on a case by case basis. They should be discussing this stuff with a trademark attorney, and if they are making any investment in promoting the logo it probably pays to do at least some minimal clearance work to make sure no one else has superior rights.
posted by caddis at 4:18 AM on March 5, 2006

Are you talking about licensed "stock?" If so, the first place to start is with the license terms.
posted by anathema at 10:57 AM on March 5, 2006

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