By Jeff Wolfe

jeff2In the course of our practice, working with businesses of all sizes and stages, we often face questions about proper use of customer names and logos on our clients’ websites and other marketing materials. The main question is whether it is “legal” to use the names and logos of customers for such purposes.

As with many business legal questions, the first place to look is at contracts signed by the relevant parties. The answer is an easy “yes” if there is a contractual agreement that gives you a license to use a customer’s trade name and/or trademarks. If we know a client is going to want to publicize the contract (at least generically, not usually the specific terms), we will insert a publicity provision into the customer contract. Typically, companies are willing to let their partners and vendors promote the relationship since they, too, earn publicity in the process. Customers occasionally reject a publicity provision, but usually the only pushback we receive is to ensure proper safeguards are in place to protect the customer, such as requiring that the client comply with the customer’s trademark usage policy.

On the other hand, the answer is clearly “no” if there is contractual language that expressly prohibits use of the customer’s name or logo. We often see large companies request this language either because they want to keep their vendors confidential, or they are attempting to minimize the time and energy spent protecting unauthorized use of their trade names and trademarks. There are also variations in between “yes” and “no,” where either the customer’s prior consent is required or usage is limited to certain purposes (e.g., press releases).

If the question is not addressed in a contract, then using a customer’s name or logo could open you up to legal liability. Accordingly, we recommend clients ask for permission ahead of time (and secure such permission in some type of written form). While the risk is low that a customer will sue you for unauthorized use of their name or logo, you want to avoid that awkward conversation when you are requested to remove it. Since these are coveted business relationships that you want to promote, you obviously do not want to risk losing a customer by failing to ask for permission in advance. Even if the customer does not terminate its relationship with you, by causing irritation to the point where you’re asked to stop using the name or logo, you’re putting those hard-earned, well-built relationships at risk.

Our clients, like our firm, are proud of the companies with whom they do business, and they see the display of these names and logos as not only points of pride, but as a marketing tool to attract similar customers. However, you want to use these promotional efforts to leverage your relationships in the marketplace, not to put your success at risk. The attorneys of the Forrest Firm are here to help you navigate issues such as proper use of your customers’ names and logos on your website and other marketing materials, and the many other risk management issues you face in the daily operation of your business.