Some photos of mine which I took downtown shows several stores in the background. These stores have their sign showing their company name or logo and are for various internationally known brands. The signs are recognizable in the photo.

Does this constitute fair use or does it infringe upon the copyrights or trademarks of those companies?

This may differ by region but I have much such photos taken in Canada and the US but also in some other countries around the world, at least in Europe and Asia, although almost certainly South America and possibly Africa.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ what do you intend to do with the photos? \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    Feb 24, 2018 at 17:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ It depends over time. Today I was wondering because I was looking to enter one in a photo contest. As I said, these signs are background that just happen to be in the picture. they are not subjects by themselves. \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Feb 24, 2018 at 19:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not an answer, not a lawyer - they paid to put those signs up to advertise. They can hardly complain if they appear in photos. At minimum it's free advertising, & I wouldn't think they'd entertain being charged to advertise their product in your photographic business, so all is equal in the end. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 24, 2018 at 19:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would expect you should have no issues with a photo contest, or even selling it as a print. Using it for stock might be a whole different matter though. Of course, jurisdiction will matter as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – Robin
    Feb 26, 2018 at 17:51

3 Answers 3


IANAL, but I think it'd depend on how you use the photo. If your photo just happens to include someone's sign because it was there in the scene, that should be fine. Many cities have signs that have become icons in their cities, and nobody would reasonably claim that you couldn't photograph them. Here are a couple examples:

On the other hand, you shouldn't use an image of someone's sign to imply endorsement by the brand advertised in the sign.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Many of my photos would be similar to the second above, a street scene with more things going on let's say, but essentially a sign appears in the background, in contrast to the last image that is basically the sign plus a bit of building that it's attached to. \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Feb 24, 2018 at 19:07

"Fair use" is mainly a US concept that does not really exist in this way in all countries, so I am not answering the substantive question in terms of "fair use".

Relevant concepts of copyright law that exist in more (not all) countries are:

  • Freedom of panorama, which is the concept that photos of copyrighted works that are permanently displayed in public spaces do not infringe copyrights on those works. As applied to your question, storefront signs are frequently permanently displayed in public spaces, so they may fall under such exceptions.
  • De minimis, which is (in the context of copyright law relevant to photography; the general legal concept is broader) the concept that incidental inclusion of a copyrighted work does not infringe copyrights on those works. As applied to your question, if you are photographing something else and those signs just happen to appear in the background or in a corner, then this concept may apply to you.

The linked pages have information about various countries' laws on those matters.


The usual disclaimers apply - I'm not a lawyer, and this, as you mentioned, is likely to vary by country/state/city/etc, so if you need a better answer, find yourself a lawyer in the region in question.

But, I would think that for the most part, as long as the corporate logos are essentially background elements of the image - i.e. they're not what you're taking a picture of - then you should be fine. At least where I live in the US, it would be difficult to take photos in public without some sort of corporate logo showing up, even if just in a soft drink can or candy wrapper. On the other hand, if you're going around taking pictures specifically of those logos, that's a completely different question...

  • \$\begingroup\$ Also who's region are we talking about? Today I asked myself the question when selecting images for a photo contest in Japan, it is of a photo taken in the US by a Canadian photographer (me). \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Feb 24, 2018 at 19:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ltai That's a good point. I was thinking within the region where the company owning the copyright/trademark is, but consulting one where you will be displaying/selling/competing the photo wouldn't be a bad idea either. \$\endgroup\$
    – twalberg
    Feb 24, 2018 at 19:50

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