Avoid copyright problems in business communications: what you need to know

Copyright Problems In this article

On a daily basis, rules around copyright may not affect your business much at all. However, most traders have their own website, social media and other marketing literature.

You need to be careful to stay on the right side of the law when you create your business communications.

You must NOT:

  • use an image, logo, design etc. without the permission of its owner
  • claim somebody else’s intellectual property is your own work.

What is intellectual property?

Anything that can be claimed to have been created or invented by someone counts as intellectual property. Rules around intellectual property cover artistic works, inventions, literature, words, phrases, symbols and designs.

Using images

When you take a photograph, you own the copyright to that image – unless you’ve taken it as part of your job, in which case it belongs to your employer. So you can take a photograph of your work (with the permission of the customer whose home or car you’ve been working on), and then you are free to use that on a website, in social media or other marketing materials.

If you wish to use a photo that somebody else has taken, you need their permission. Ideally you should get this in writing – either in the form of a contract, a release form or an email.

Using logos

Individuals or businesses can register specific things as a trade mark, including:

  • words
  • phrases
  • colours
  • sounds
  • a combination of any of these.

It is usually a good idea to register company logos as trade marks, so that they are better protected under intellectual property law. See our article on registering your business name as a trade mark to find out how this can help protect your business.

If you are using another company’s logo and it has been registered as a trade mark you must have the permission of the trade mark owner to use it. This means that if you use other companies’ logos to show who you work with, you must get their permission to do so.

Bear in mind, if you take a photograph of an installation that you’ve worked on that contains other company’s logos, you still need to get permission to use it from the logo owners, even though you hold the copyright of the photograph itself.

For example, if you installed a kitchen and took a photo that showed the Bosch logo prominently displayed on a washing machine, you’d need to ask permission from Bosch to use the image in your business communications. A simpler solution would be to retake the photo, excluding any logos.

'Passing off'

You must never use images of other people’s work, logos or products and display them as though they were your own. This could be a breach of the image owner’s copyright, and the owner might be able to bring an action for ‘passing-off’ under Common Law.  It is also likely to be a breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, as it would almost certainly be viewed as a misleading action, and a breach of the CAP Code, as it would constitute misleading advertising.

For example, if Dodgy Ltd showed a picture of Honest and Sons’ work on the Dodgy Ltd website, stating that it was a good example of a Dodgy Ltd job, this would be ‘passing off’. In this instance Honest and Sons would be entitled to ask Dodgy Ltd to remove the images from its communications and, in extreme cases, to sue the offending company.

Similarly, you can’t use a review left about another business, or another company’s business name, logo or product, and claim it is your own. You just need to use common sense here – if it’s not yours, don’t say that it is.

Any attempt to mislead customers in this way would also go against the Which? Trusted Traders Code of Conduct, and could lead to expulsion from the scheme.

Backing up claims about your product or service

Under consumer law, you need to be able to prove any claims you make about the product or service you provide. It can be easy to get carried away when creating promotional material, but saying something about your business that can’t be objectively proven would be a breach of the CAP code, as well as breaching the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. That could result in an investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority or Trading Standards.  

For example, you can’t say: ‘We’re the best plumbers in London’ without being able to back it up with an objective assessment of all the plumbers in London. You can be more specific, if there is some kind of ‘evidence’, for example, ‘We’re the best plumbers in London, according to the Evening Standard plumbers poll’. Or you could say: ‘Our customers describe us as helpful, considerate and great value for money’ if you could demonstrate that you had actually received that feedback and they'd used those words.

If you believe something to be true about your product or service but can’t prove it, you must report it as opinion. For example, you could say: ‘We think we’re the best plumbers in London.’

It might feel like a fine line but, again, you need to use your common sense. If you’ve got proof that what you are saying is true, then you’ll be OK. If you can’t prove it’s true with written or physical evidence, then either report it as opinion or leave it out of your business communications altogether.