Wikipedia:Logo Copyright/Trademark

A lot of confusion exists across Wikipedia concerning the extent to which images (and particularly logos of companies, schools, and the like) can or cannot be used on Wikipedia. This essay will attempt to clear up any confusion by outlining the various classes of images usable on Wikipedia, and synthesizing the various standards that relate to the use of each – both legal standards and internal Wikipedia policies.

Wikipedia's free-content paradigmEdit

In general, Wikipedia strives to be a free-content source of information. See WP:Non-free content. Ideally, this means that any content posted on Wikipedia should be freely usable and transferable by anyone with access to it. This applies to the images hosted on Wikipedia in addition to the text featured on its pages.

Free-content images generally fall into two categories: (1) images that no one owns (i.e., "public domain" images), and (2) images that someone owns, but have been freely licensed. There are a variety of licenses that Wikipedia accepts which are described at WP:Image_licenses. Whenever a person uploads an image to Wikipedia they are required to fill out the Image description page with an explanation of both the source of the image and the license (or public domain status) of the image. Free images normally should be uploaded on Wikimedia Commons, a separate website, instead of Wikipedia itself (uploading on the Commons enables an image to be used for other Wikimedia projects in addition to Wikipedia).

Conversely, use of "non-free" images on Wikipedia is generally discouraged. But under various circumstances, non-free content can be used. These circumstances are outlined at WP:Non-free content criteria (often abbreviated as WP:NFCC). These non-free content rules have a long history behind them, and are often the subject of interpretation and debate on Wikipedia. This essay does not attempt to explain the non-free content criteria directly, but rather deal with one area of common confusion: namely, how the non-free content criteria relate to copyrighted and trademarked images.

Copyright versus trademarkEdit

Ownership interests in an image come in a variety of legal forms, the two most basic of which are copyright and trademark rights. When people speak of "owning" an image, they most often mean that they own the copyright. Generally speaking, copyright protection is pretty broad, and it prohibits sale, use, manipulation, or even copying of someone else's work (hence the name). Copyright standards differ from country to country.[1] For purposes of Wikipedia, U.S. copyright law governs (although Wikipedia attempts to respect all foreign copyright laws where possible; see WP:Copyright). Any created image, whether it is a picture, a logo, or an artistic design can be subject to a copyright. Although there are Administrative ways to formally register a copyright (in the United States, this is done with the Library of Congress), copyright protection does not require this, and creative works are granted copyright protection from the time they are created.

Trademark rights are different, although related. Generally speaking, a trademark is an image or logo[2] that identifies a business, product line, school, or some other venture. Normally trademarks apply to logos that identify the venture, rather than artistic works such as pictures. Although third parties can still use a trademarked image, the way they can use the image is restricted by trademark law. Most basically, if a logo is used to identify a business/organization/product, then you are not allowed to use that logo to identify or refer to another business/organization/product.

Identifying copyrighted and trademarked imagesEdit

These rules about copyrights/trademarks either may or may not apply to any particular logo you see on Wikipedia. Most logos are copyrights. Some are not. Most logos are trademarks, but a few are not. In many cases they will be both.

The New Orleans Saints fleur-de-lis logo is ineligible for copyright protection since it is a historically common design.

In a fair amount of cases, a logo is considered a trademark without also being a copyright. This is most often the case for simple logos that only contain letters or simple geometric shapes. The rationale here is that such simple logos do not meet the threshold of originality required under U.S. copyright law.

Simple letter/color/font combinations do not qualify for copyright status -- this includes "mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring. Likewise, the arrangement of type on a printed page cannot support a copyright claim." See the Copyright Office's Compendium of copyright registration standards, Section 506.03 and the materials at this essay's subpage on typeface issues. So basically, mere letter or word elements, even if they look fancy, are not copyrights; typically, a logo has to have a "pictorial" element within it to qualify for copyright protection.

Similarly, mere geometric shapes do not qualify for copyright protection. "[I]it is not possible to copyright common geometric figures or shapes such as the hexagon or the ellipse, a standard symbol such as an arrow or a five-pointed star." See the Copyright Office's Compendium of copyright registration standards, Section 503.02(a). Geometric shapes considered "unoriginal" under this test can also include more complex but historically-common designs such as the "fleur-de-lis." See Forstmann Woolen Co. v. J.W. Mays, 89 F.Supp. 964 (E.D.N.Y. 1950) ("Surely and certainly in the form in which the fleur-de-lis are shown, no originality is displayed"). As a result, even some well-known images such as the New Orleans Saints' logo (right) are not subject to copyright protection.[3]

These types of simple logos are considered "public domain," meaning that anyone can use them – although the way that people can use a public domain logo would still be limited by trademark law.

Identifying what is a copyright, trademark, or both has some cues to it. If you see an image bearing the notation ® or ™, that means that someone (but you don't know who) claims that this is a trademark (® denotes a "registered trademark," which many people often confuse as a copyright claim). If you see an image with the notation ©, then that means that someone (again, you don't know who) is claiming this as a copyright. These claims may or not be correct, and people need to use their own judgment. If you see an image without such a notation, that doesn't necessarily mean anything.

Use of copyrighted or trademarked images on WikipediaEdit

The restrictions on using images on Wikipedia depend on whether an image is copyrighted, or is merely a (public-domain) trademark.

Copyrighted/fair-use imagesEdit

As stated above, copyrighted images generally need to be released under the terms of a license in order to be used on Wikipedia. The main exception to this is a claim of fair use. In a nutshell, legal fair use doctrine allows the use of copyrighted image in order to identify the subject matter for purposes of public comment.

Although Wikipedia allows the use of images under a claim of fair use, it applies its own internal policies on the use of such material, independent of what the law might allow. Most of these policies are contained at WP:Non-free content criteria. Among other things this requires the following:

  • Copyrighted images can only be used on "article namespace" pages (i.e., the regular articles on Wikipedia, not the behind-the-scenes type pages such as userpages, templates (including userboxes), and the like). See Wikipedia:Fair_use#Policy, Rule #9 (which you will often see referred to as "NFCC #9" for "Non-Free Content Criterion #9).
  • Uploading a copyrighted image requires the uploader to supply a "fair-use rationale" on the image's description page. See NFCC #10(c).
  • Uploading a copyrighted image requires the uploader to supply a "tag" summarizing the legal status of the image (described below). See NFCC #10(b).

In addition, a couple other policies separately apply to graphic logos:

Trademarked/public-domain imagesEdit

This is an example of a design the use of which is limited on Wikipedia for trademark, rather than copyright, reasons.

Trademarked images on Wikipedia that do not rise to the level of copyright (i.e., "public domain" trademarks), are considered "free" content for licensing purposes. They do not need a fair-use rationale on their image description page in order to be used. In addition, Wikipedia's self-imposed restrictions on fair-use images do not apply to public-domain images; this means that they can be used in non-article namespace pages – e.g. userpages, templates (including userboxes), and the like – and as icons.

While normally the use of non-copyrightable trademarks is not restricted on Wikipedia, there are some exceptions where a particular article or other page might not match the intended scope of trademark's use, and therefore the use of the image on such pages is not allowed. For instance, the UCLA script logo (right) is a simple design that does not meet the threshold of originality for copyright protection. It remains a trademark of the University of California at Los Angeles, however, and its use in commerce is restricted by UCLA only to athletic purposes.[6] Accordingly, the use of this image has been restricted on Wikipedia only to pages relating to UCLA athletics. Among other things, this means that the image has been replaced in the UCLA userbox (usable by all UCLA alumni, whether athletes or not) with this alternative image (which is also a public-domain trademark, but one that is used by UCLA for its general academic program).

Tagging copyrighted and trademarked images on WikipediaEdit

On Wikipedia, every image, including logos, that you see will have been uploaded to a specific page that describes the picture. This page should (but does not always) contain particular templates (or "tags") that describe whether the image is a (fair-use) copyright, is a (public-domain) trademark, or has some other rationale for its use on Wikipedia. A copyright image should have a tag attached to it that looks like this:

The code you would insert on the image page to insert this tag is: {{Non-free logo}}

An example of such an image page would be the Chevrolet "bowtie" logo image page. Image pages with the {{Non-free logo}} tag should also contain some additional (often lengthy) explanations known as a "non-free media use rationale" that justify their use on Wikipedia – this information is required because of Non-free content criterion #10.

Similarly, a trademark image should contain the following tag:

code: {{Trademark}}

And a trademark image that is simple enough that it does not qualify for copyright protection should be tagged:

code: {{PD-textlogo}}

Other potentially-applicable tags for more specific circumstances can be found at Category:Wikipedia_file_copyright_templates.

An example of an image page with these kinds of tags is the IBM logo image page. Normally the {{Trademark}} and the {{PD-textlogo}} tags are placed together. Also, under normal circumstances, a {{PD-textlogo}} image would not contain any "non-free media use rationale," because as a public-domain image, this explanation is unnecessary for use on Wikipedia.

However, just because an image page is tagged as {{Non-free logo}}, {{PD-textlogo}}, or anything else, does not mean that this is determinative. Like everything else on Wikipedia, such tags are subject to change by any editor with an opinion – right or wrong. Often the tags are changed by editors subsequent to their uploading because of a difference of opinion. But in principle, a qualified {{PD-textlogo}} image should be freely usable on Wikipedia in any context, as long as it does not misidentify its subject. Images that are tagged as {{PD-textlogo}} which have also been moved to the Wikimedia Commons have an additional indicator of being public-domain ("free") images – although again, this is not determinative.

Dispute resolutionEdit

If editors have a disagreement about whether an image qualifies under the {{PD-textlogo}} standard or any other standard, it is highly suggested that, instead of engaging in revert wars, that the editors use each other's talk pages and submit the issue to the relevant noticeboard. There are three image-related noticeboards editors can use:

  • Disputes about the qualifications of an allegedly public-domain image can be submitted to the files for discussion noticeboard, as can disputes about the appropriate use of non-free content.
  • Any image-related questions can always be directed to the media copyright desk.

There area also a variety of general help boards available on Wikipedia. General disputes between two editors, whether image related or not, can be submitted to the third opinion ("3O") help desk. For more complicated editorial disputes, the request for commentary ("RFC") procedure can also be used. There is also a Mediation Cabal ("MedCab") for soliciting advice from a single editor, rather seeking public comment under an RFC. Use of the incident noticeboard is discouraged unless one of the above processes have been tried first, and/or an editor is clearly acting in bad faith. Referral of an editor to this essay may also help avoid any misunderstandings.

See alsoEdit

Wikipedia content guidelines
Wikipedia policies
Wikipedia information pages
Other essays


  1. ^ There are, however, international agreements that offer reciprocal copyright protection among signatory countries – most notable being the Berne Convention.
  2. ^ Similar rights can attach to non-image based identifying marks such as trade dress.
  3. ^ "Louisiana AG brokers end to 'Who Dat' spat". February 1, 2010. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
  4. ^ "Product logos and corporate logos, such as the stylized rendition of the word Dell used by Dell, Inc., whether copyrighted or not, may be used once in the infobox or corner of articles about the related product, service, company, or entity."
  5. ^ "Use of company logos, sports team crests and other copyrighted images in articles can usually only be done on a "fair use" basis (generally as an illustration of the primary subject - eg the IBM logo on the IBM article). Use of such images as icons is nearly always prohibited (see Wikipedia:Non-free use rationale guideline and Wikipedia:Logos)."
  6. ^ "UCLA Graphic Standards Manual" (PDF). UCLA. p. 14. Retrieved June 10, 2010.