Looking for a new logo for your company, product or service so you fire up Google image search, type in some keywords and behold the wealth of artwork ripe for the picking, right? Not so fast. Here’s a few practical reasons why using a logo you found on the Internet is a spectacularly bad idea.

We’ve preached the ethics of knocking off logos, or rather the lack of same, over-and-over for many years so not going to repeat that here. What we are going to do is take a practical look at why – ethics aside completely – purloining a logo you’ve found on the Internet, via Google image search let’s say, is a very bad idea, a self-inflicted form of branding Russian Roulette.

Even Google tells you it’s not cool.

Whenever you search for a logo on Google image search, the search giant warns you every time it serves up a selection.
The understated warning lets you know that “images may be subject to copyright.” Simple. Here’s the thing on that – even if you can’t find a logo in use on a company website, it doesn’t mean that anyone has given up their intellectual property rights. If you can’t find the owner to ask their permission or to find out what the copyright status, you shouldn’t use the logo (or any image for that matter.) See, it’s up to you to get permission for use of a copyrighted image, not for the holder to make themselves available to be found.

Why and how it happens.

The Internet is a visual medium so it’s awash in graphics, photographs and for this exercise, logo design examples. The rationale for designers is easy, the Internet allows them to showcase work to a worldwide audience on their own websites or platforms like Behance, Instagram or Dribbble. Those logo images find their way into Google search which uses related text on the page as keywords, so they’re easily found by someone searching for this-or-that type of logo. In theory the image will lead
the potential client who’s looking for a particular style back to the designer’s website, where they can engage them for a branding gig. It’s a decent form of advertising as well as content generation for search. What often happens instead is the searcher will save the image, add their own name and viola, instant brand for their company, product or service. So what’s wrong with that? Plenty. What can happen? Plenty.

You’ve only got the logo.

First of all, you’ve only managed to save yourself a 72 dpi, low resolution version of the logo you’re trying to ahm, emulate. In today’s social media and mutli-device marketplace, that’s simply not enough to build any type of brand around. Unless you’re going to hack the image using your own design software, you’ll have to have the image converted to vector (and that’s an iffy proposition depending on how large the image size of your source material is.) Unless you have a fair grasp of Photoshop, Illustrator or similar, you’re going to have to find a designer anyway. It’ll have to be one who’s willing to entertain you knocking off someone else, and if they’re that ethically challenged to begin with, you’re well within the realm of caveat emptor.

How they gonna find out?

The rationale for knocking off logos from the web is usually a version of “the logo is from somebody half way around the world, how are they going to find out anyway?”

The rationale for knocking off logos from the web is usually a version of “the logo is from somebody half way around the world, how are they going to find out anyway?”

That’s probably true if you pinch some image from the Internet and restrict it to using it on the sign in front of your shop, a business card maybe, perhaps some T-shirts to give away to clients.

But that’s never where it ends, is it?

The minute your hot logo shows up on the Internet – be it a Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram or your website – it’s begun the journey into search engines and odds you’re going to get found out start to increase exponentially. It is remarkably easy to find similar pictures in Google image search, simply by dragging into the search field and most designers routinely search for illicit versions of their work from time-to-time. There are also dedicated “online copyright protection” services like Myows whose only function is to track down knocked off logos. There’s Tin Eye, a reverse image search that does pretty much the same thing. Designers also tend to be a pretty protective bunch and if they run into a bootleg logo they recognize (which is entirely possible considering they use Google image search too) don’t be surprised if they rat you out to the original designer. People helping themselves to our infamous boat logo were forever being turned in via our contact form.

Fair use.

The area where a lot of people get confused about what they can and can’t do with logos they’ve found on the internet is the idea of “fair use” or the legally acceptable use of someone else’s design in your own media – be it on Facebook, Twitter or a website. Here’s some examples of fair use that are generally acceptable:

1) Commentary.
Something along the lines of “here’s a history and some trivia about this company [logo]” or “here’s a screen capture of Google image search [logos]” like the picture at the head of this post.
2) Critique
Think “I used this company and their service was great [logo].”
2) Parody.
That’s when you’d use [logo] in a humorous way to poke fun at the company represented (careful about libel though) or to have a laugh at the expense of the industry they’re in. There are many other variations but you get the general idea. What’s not acceptable is this:
1) Using it as your own logo.
This one is simple – when you proclaim to the public “this is my company’s spanking new logo [logo].” That’s not “fair use” at all – it’s literally “unfair,” unethical and copyright infringement. While you may still run into problems with the earlier “fair use” applications I mentioned, this one is a certainty. It is a spectacularly bad idea to try and pass someone else’s logo off as your own.

Knocking off logos is legally actionable.

What many people don’t understand – though they should – is that using someone’s artwork without permission isn’t just unethical, it’s legally actionable. Knocking off a logo isn’t theft per se (though that’s probably what you’ll get accused of) it is copyright infringement and copyright infringement can cost you a lot of money. What are the actual chances of this?

That all depends.

If you’ve cribbed some young kid’s logo from the other side of the planet, there’s not much chance they’ll be sending you a court summons (though a cease & desist is entirely possible.) Lawsuits are expensive, so unless the designer or firm you’ve knocked off is very well heeled you’ll probably be safe from legal beagles.

In some cases.

Don’t ever, ever, ever think of using Apple’s classic icon – they have a building of lawyers just waiting to take you to the cleaners in court. What’s the damage? That all depends too. Copyright infringement settlements can be very expensive as they can factor in damages, profit that you made using the other person’s property and you might have to hand some of that over (especially if you sold stuff with the artwork on it.) Speaking of expense, how much is it going to cost you to replace all those business cards, coffee mugs, websites and vehicle wraps you’ve plastered that knocked off logo on, once you get served a cease & desist? Who knows, but probably a lot more than you saved by pinching that design off the Internet. And even if they can’t touch you legally, you’re not out of the woods just yet.

Name & shame.

If you’re starting up a new company – that’s probably why you need a logo in the first place – you’re going to want to be found on the internet in search engines, either using keywords for your industry (that’ll take some time) or by your company name (that’ll happen faster.) Facebook is one of the fastest. Now, imagine if the designer (or other company) you knocked off the logo from happened to start griping on their blog or social media platform about you ripping their logo. They’ll probably show up higher in the search engines that you will – keep in mind that’s how you found their logo in the first place – so whenever your customer is searching for you, they might just find a tale of woe about how you nicked some kid’s design and are refusing to stop. That’s not very nice for a brand ethos. There’s nothing you can do about this either because they’re half way around the world from you too, and unless they write something demonstrably untrue about you or your company, it ain’t libel anyway. I once wrote an open letter about knocked off logos in which I had to take extraordinary steps to make sure the restaurant I was talking about didn’t get picked up by search engines. Here’s another time where I didn’t try so hard. If you want them to take down the negative post – which they might not ever do – you’ll have to stop using their artwork as an initial bargaining chip.

Social media backlash.

Knock off a logo and you can be sure somebody will bitch about it on Twitter. How far that goes depends on things like follower counts and what-not, but one thing’s for sure; nothing sets off designers on social media like someone plagiarizing artwork. Here’s some high profile Twitterstorms that blew up over various artwork getting pinched. You really don’t want to be on the receiving end of one of those.

The power of the DMCA.

A DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) take down notice is a pretty powerful tool for the person you’ve knocked off and it’s something you might not be aware of. What is it? Under the DMCA, and in simple terms, webhosts are protected under “safe harbor” rules – they’re not legally responsible for what users put on their servers as long as there’s a method allowing copyright holders to get unauthorized versions of their property taken off. How it works is pretty straight forward. The legit owner sends a DMCA notice to your webhost (or social media platform) informing them that you’re using their IP without permish. Here’s an actual DMCA takedown that I filed to Amazon over some artwork that had been nicked from our site (you could probably adapt it for your own purposes too):

A website that your company hosts (according to WHOIS information) is infringing on at least one copyright (and US/Canadian trademark) owned by myself and my company. Artwork has been copied onto your servers without permission. The original artwork, to which we own the exclusive copyrights, can be found at:

www.[link.html] (and .jpg attached)

The unauthorized and infringing copy can be found at:

www.[link.html] (page)
www.[link.jpg] (direct link to image)

This letter is official notification under Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (”DMCA”), and I seek the removal of the aforementioned infringing material from your servers. I request that you immediately notify the infringer of this notice and inform them of their duty to remove the infringing material immediately, and notify them to cease any further posting of infringing material to your server in the future. I am providing this notice in good faith and with the reasonable belief that rights my company owns are being infringed. Under penalty of perjury I certify that the information contained in the notification is both true and accurate, and I have the authority to act on behalf of the owner of the copyright(s) involved.

Should you wish to discuss this with me please contact me directly.
Thank you.

That’s all there is to it (for what it’s worth, the logos in question were gone in under 24 hours.) Many platforms have even simplified & automated the DMCA process – here’s Facebook’s copyright infringement form. How it works at your end? You get a few days to remove the content or explain, to your host, why you think you do have the right to keep it up. You might claim “fair use” but as we’ve already discussed, knocking off a logo doesn’t qualify. Chances are the original source of the art can prove they have copyright (keep in mind that copyright is automatic on creation and doesn’t even need to be registered.) Pretty much all they have to do is prove first use and your host won’t be terribly enthusiastic about going to bat for you over a legit DMCA if it fits the pegs into the right holes. If you can’t come up with a valid timeline that trumps the original owners story, your host will remove anything that features the logo without too much fuss. So you just put it up again, right? If they have to play whack-a-mole with you over this design, they’ll eventually nuke your account. Bottom line – knocking off a logo you found on the internet means you’re vulnerable to a lot of consequences. It may not be today. Or next week. A few months from now.

But they’ll be coming. Probably.