Monday, May 11, 2015

Corporate Use of Lego Star Wars

Dear Rich: I make many presentations for internal company use on topics in the range of safety, health and quality. I wanted to start taking photos of Lego Star Wars figures in different poses and staging for some of my slides. Would this be a Lucas Films or Disney infringement on the Star Wars characters? I would not be selling the presentations and they would remain in house. I would, however, be printing slides in the form of a handbook for use within the company and would therefore have the Star Wars lego characters displayed. I will also be presenting at a national trade show in the future. Would the use of the Star Wars Lego figures change in any regard assuming it was ok for internal company use? In other words, now that the presentation would have a larger audience, would that be infringing on the star wars brand? Does any of this change if I use a more generic Lego figure like a fire fighter or construction worker?
We preface this by saying that there's a big difference between the uses you describe for corporate purposes than if the characters were used for personal creative purposes -- for example, for a few YouTube episodes. The Lego Group and Disney are more likely to tolerate personal uses than corporate uses because corporate borrowing may imply association or endorsement, and because corporations are solid targets with bigger pockets. In general, we think:

  • your internal uses on slide presentations are infringing but may go unnoticed by lawyers for the Lego Group and Disney, 
  • your national trade show presentation is more likely to be noticed, 
  • your use of the handbook, if discovered, could add to legal problems for your company, and
  • use of non-Stars Wars Lego characters, if discovered by the the Lego Group, would likely lead to the same problems.

You've been warned. If any of the uses are discovered -- for example, a disgruntled employee or a competitor reports you to the Lego Group -- you'll likely be liable for copyright and trademark infringement. As the Lego Group explains succinctly here, and in their downloadable Fair Play Brochure (the link can be found on this page):
Time and again, we see our products and trademarks used in the marketing of totally unrelated products and services, giving the impression that the Lego Group is somehow involved in or associated with such business activities or services, with which we are not actually involved. When used in these unrelated settings, be it in printed material or on the internet, the value of our trademarks may be diminished and the identities of our company, our products and our trademarks can lose their distinctiveness.
These statements don't have the force of law but you get the picture. You don't want cease and desist letters showing up in the mailroom. It's best to either obtain permission or find another method of making your point.
P.S. If this seems daunting, keep in mind that even the makers of The Lego Movie had trouble getting permission.