Every fire department is particularly proud of its distinctive logo. The department puts the logo on its apparatus, social media sites, and members’ apparel, and some of the apparel is sold to and worn by non-members who appreciate the connection to the department.

It should be as protective as it is proud. Because occasionally, use of the logo outside the department becomes a problem. Like the time the Albuquerque Fire Department’s engine, with logo conspicuously displayed, was used in a pornographic photo shoot (the logo was blurred out by the original publisher only after the photo was distributed to 25,000 affiliates), or when a critic of a local department used the logo to identify a web site which was hyper-critical of the department, or when a non-member produced and sold knock-off apparel.

The fire department generally does have exclusive rights to the logo, and can take easy steps to protect its rights from infringers who may damage the department’s reputation and goodwill and even compete with the department for sale of hats and shirts.

Your fire department’s design, assuming it is original and distinctive, is protected by trademark and copyright laws. Federal registration, though helpful in many ways, is not necessary to secure protection. Simple use of the logo, on the apparatus, on the web or by sale of apparel or other products, will trigger protection against infringers who use the logo without permission.

A notice should be put on the department’s web site providing that the logo cannot be reproduced without permission. Similarly, use of the department logo by members should be regulated. A policy might provide that the use of department logos or department owned images except as permitted by the department is prohibited.”

Obviously a lawsuit is a last resort, but a strongly drafted letter should be sent immediately upon discovery of the improper use. The letter should, as appropriate, allege not only trademark and copyright infringement, but also false designation of origin (consumers would be lead to believe that the t-shirt or web site comes from the department) and unfair competition.

A review of the trademark database of the US Patent and Trademark Office does not reveal many applications for Federal trademark protection, though registration is possible. New York City and Los Angeles have registered their logos, perhaps because they license them for significant royalties. However, an investment of less than $1,000 to obtain Federal protection of a logo which is the department’s identity is generally not a heavy lift and may be economically sensible in the long run.


This article was originally published in the monthly newsletter of the Westchester County Association of Fire Chiefs.