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Posted on February 19, 2014.
Is it legal to use the names of your customers and their logos on a client list you show to the public?
For example, can you legally have a page on your website on which you display those names and logos, to identify your customers?
Technically, the law would ask whether the use of the client’s name and logo constitutes a trademark or copyright infringement.
In brief research, I could not find a single case addressing this issue. That makes sense because, if the customer is upset by the use of its logo and name without permission, it probably would just ask you to take it down rather than suing you. So I won’t venture here into the trademark and copyright legal weeds.
The legal aspect of this question is more likely to be a contract issue. Many large companies use language in their purchasing contracts to prohibit the use by their vendors of their names and logos in advertisements and client lists, except where the company grants express permission in advance.
Yet, even if you violate such a contractual provision by advertising the customer relationship without permission, you probably won’t get sued over it. You’ll probably just get asked to stop.
Mainly, this is a prudence issue. It’s bad business manners to advertise that someone is your customer without prior permission. Doing so would be like putting down someone as a reference for a school or job application without asking first.
Some people just don’t like to be used as references without permission even if they would give the permission gladly.
Also, there may be reasons why your customer might not want to have its relationship with your company advertised. For example, depending upon the kind of product or service you provide, public advertising of that relationship could make your customer look unsophisticated. It also could provide useful information to a hacker or someone looking to engage in industrial espionage.
So how should you approach this issue?
Obviously, the best approach is to ask for permission. Many small and medium-sized businesses will grant that freely. In fact, your asking for permission might be a good way for you to find out how your customer feels about you without putting your customer on the spot to give direct feedback. To maximize this feedback opportunity, it would be better to ask in person or, at least, on the phone, so you can better read your contact.
Yet, you probably won’t be able to get permission from a really large company. They have bureaucratic processes for approving such requests and usually will have no incentive to respond to your request, much less approve it. Expect corporate conservatism to lead your not getting a response or to the answer “no.”
What can you do when you anticipate such a situation? You could feign contractual ignorance and plan to ask for forgiveness in the place of permission.
You could offer a discount in exchange for permission. Yet, you probably don’t need to offer that discount to get permission from a small or medium-sized company, and it probably won’t help you with a large company because of its bureaucratic purchasing and legal processes.
Another strategy is to put into your contract documents that you may use the customer’s name and logo in advertising the customer relationship, while promising that you will keep the customer’s confidential information confidential. The trick then will be getting your customer to sign off on your contract documents rather than it insisting on using its own documents. If you are small and your customer is large, that probably will be difficult.
Just keep in mind that mainly what is at stake is your customer’s opinion of you. In my experience, most new business comes from happy existing customers and from those existing customers recommending you to other potential customers. For that reason, I would err on the side of getting permission rather than taking a chance by doing the customer-relationship advertising without it.
Written on February 19, 2014
by John B. Farmer
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