By Tara M. Madison

Social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are transforming the way companies communicate with consumers. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can be powerful business tools, but you must be mindful of certain legal limitations and guidelines.

The words “Facebook,” “YouTube,” and “Twitter” are proprietary to the companies that own them. “Facebook,” “YouTube,” and “Twitter” are all registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. A trademark is a distinctive word, logo or phrase that is used by an individual or business to identify a unique source of products or services.

Facebook, Inc., Twitter, Inc. and Google, Inc., the owner of YouTube, are entitled to prevent others from using their trademarks, which include logos, or something similar, in a way that is misleading, deceptive or could cause confusion in the marketplace. You must first obtain permission before using another’s trademark.

Both Facebook and Google authorize the use of the Facebook and YouTube trademarks in specified ways. For example, both Facebook and Google prohibit users from modifying their trademarks and from using their trademarks as a verb. These guidelines are set forth in full on each of their websites. Twitter, however, expressly prohibits the use of its trademarks. The Twitter basic terms state, “Nothing in the Terms gives you a right to use the Twitter name or any of the Twitter trademarks, logos, domain names, and other distinctive brand features.” Thus, Twitter users should be wary of using the Twitter trademark to promote their businesses in advertising without receiving specific permission.

Google allows commercial usage of certain YouTube badges by those who make use of YouTube API, which allows users to incorporate YouTube content into the user’s own website or software application. A user is not required to get preapproval to use the YouTube API or to promote API functionality on the user’s website using the "YouTube Ready," "YouTube Videos" or "Powered by YouTube" badges, all of which are provided on the website for free download and use. But, by downloading the badges, the user agrees to be bound by certain guidelines, all of which are set forth in the Branding Guidelines on the Google website available here.  Google prohibits usage of any other form of the YouTube logo other than the badges provided on the website, as well as any variation of the YouTube trademark such as "YouTubers," "Tubing," "You-Tube," or "YouTubed," etc. Additionally, it is important to note that the YouTube license appears to only extend to use of a YouTube Badge to give attribution to a YouTube video on a website, blog, or other such means of electronic communication. The license does not specifically address print advertisements, such as billboards.

Facebook actually recommends promoting one’s Facebook page outside of Facebook, assuming very specific guidelines are followed. Facebook’s guidelines for both the use of its Brand Assets and for referencing Facebook are located in Facebook’s Brand Permissions Center located online here. For example, Facebook allows usage of its Like Button logo to be used in print advertisements and in connection with the Like Button social plugin that Facebook provides on its website. Facebook, however, prohibits usage of the Like Button logo in online advertisements. Facebook also requires users to get special permission to use the Facebook logo. Permission can be obtained directly from the Brand Permissions Center website by accessing the Permissions Request Form. Additionally, Facebook typically prohibits use of its trademarks in connection with merchandise such as clothing, hats, mugs, dolls, and toys. More examples of acceptable and unacceptable uses of Facebook’s trademarks and appropriate ways for users to reference Facebook are provided on the Brand Permission Center section of the Facebook website.

Before delving into the world of social networking advertising, take the time to read the permissions and guidelines of whatever social networking site you may be using. These guidelines are typically located on the social network’s website. If there are no guidelines, the default rule is that specific permission should be sought to use the social network’s trademark to promote your business by incorporating a social network’s trademark in commercial advertisements.