I have designed logos for sermon series and ministries. Often, the church wants to tap into a pop-culture reference to teach biblical truth. The nineteenth century advice to “preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other” still applies today, but studies (http://people-press.org/report/689/) have shown that it is now the Bible and television and the internet.
Using pop-culture and current events to “sell” a sermon series or a ministry is creative. What is not creative is modifying a trademark. When churches do this, it is not creative. It is illegal. I have been asked many times what percentage a logo can be changed, because there is a myth that if you only use part of the logo it is legal. This comes from copyright law, where you can use a portion of a published work (with citation) without infringing on the copyright owner. For example, the following paragraph is from Disney’s Corporate Website (http://corporate.disney.go.com/corporate/conduct_standards18.html):
Under United States law, a federally registered trademark provides the registrant with nationwide protection against another’s use. Any use of another party’s trademark that gives rise to a likelihood of confusion as to the source or sponsorship of a product or service constitutes “trademark infringement” and violates the law. It is also impermissible to duplicate the packaging of a rival firm in a way that deceives or is likely to confuse the public.
I quoted just a small portion of the website, and gave you a link to go to the original content, so I am not violating copyright law. There is no such provision in trademark law. As Disney’s legal experts state, ANY use is a violation of the law.
Consequences of violating trademark laws include cease and desist orders to lawsuits. Lawsuits do not often result in fines or punitive damages for churches, but the lawsuit itself costs on average $151,000 for litigation and $300,000 for a trial (http://www.ficpi.org/library/montecarlo99/damages.html). This is not the way most congregations would like their tithes and offerings spent, so why take the risk?
The worst consequence, though, is when churches use trademarks in an effort to identify with the culture, they are identifying in a negative way. It does not demonstrate creativity; it demonstrates disrespect for the law. Advertising agencies work diligently to create the perfect brand for their clients. Instead of stealing their work, churches should work just as diligently to bring the essence of the cultural icon into a design that is our own creation. It’s okay to use the idea, just don’t use the artwork.