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Is it legal to use car manufacturers' names in a game?

For example:

  • to describe Audi's quattro drive system?
  • to display a rendering of an Audi?
  • to include a photo (to which I have rights) of an Audi?
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You'll need to refer to Trademark Law for the country that you're operating in. You might want to consider making an effort to respect Registered Trademarks internationally too. – Randolf Richardson Jul 4 '11 at 7:20
You should really ask a lawyer, but I would assume you can't use their trademarks without permission. – Tetrad Jul 4 '11 at 9:01
@iamcreasy There is a grey area for small-scale non-commercial use. Apart from that, Marvel likely won't go to court just because they can. They'd take a hit in public opinion if they were too aggressive, and they really don't gain anything from chasing down fan-art. – aaaaaaaaaaaa Jul 4 '11 at 10:39
Marvel would get thrown out of court ... Batman is a trademark of DC :-) – Stephen Jul 4 '11 at 11:16
@iamcreasy IANAL, but I know that you can't cover behind simply being non-commercial. – aaaaaaaaaaaa Jul 4 '11 at 11:37
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The problem with "Is it legal" questions is that:

  • Laws differ from country to country, and from state to state - which jurisdiction are you in, and where do you expect your game to be distributed?
  • Even something that appears to be legal may be ruled as not legal, or vice versa, should it be put to the test.

I'm not one of these people who says you should never ask legal advice from a non-lawyer, because even lawyers are not omniscient about law - many lawyers fight cases they wrongly think they can win. However you have to accept that no answer given to you is necessarily authoritative unless given by a judge sitting on your particular case. All you can do is arm yourself with knowledge.

Regarding the use of the word 'Audi' -

Regarding the appearance of an Audi -

Regarding showing a picture of an Audi - (I reckon you'll be fine on this one)

Regarding describing the drive system - (I think you're ok here too - if the system is patented, it's public knowledge, just not public to reproduce or exploit as an invention)

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The legality of displaying a picture of an Audi depends a lot on how exactly the car is depicted and what exactly the photo will be used for. For example, is the Audi the only car in the shot, or is it just one of the cars in a crowded urban scene? Is this the box art for a racing game, or a random poster inside someone's garage? etc – jhocking Jan 30 '12 at 16:27

From experience you have two options:

Licence the vehicle(s): This will be either from the manufacturer directly or someone who already holds the licence (such as another developer that already has an exclusive licence for their use - they may choose to sub-licence). They're under no obligation to licence anything to you and will only do so if they're happy in the way in which their product is being portrayed and the context in which it appears. Depending on the manufacturer and prestige of the product the licensing costs can range from nothing right up to ridiculous amounts of money. They also like to have final approval on the finished in-game assets, etc, to ensure you're not degrading the appearance of the brand.

Don't licence the vehicles: This is the route Grand Theft Auto IV used in their last game. I highly doubt car manufacturers would want their brands associated with the type of gameplay in GTA, they worked around this by making a number of changes to the physical representation and names of the models such that it met certain legal requirements (yet you could still tell pretty much what they were meant to be).

In most of the major markets I would expect you to require a licence to do what you want, consulting a lawyer is always a fantastic idea if you're unsure of where the line falls.

Update: Some extra info on photo's from the World Intellectual Property Organization - 'Legal Pitfalls in Taking or Using Photographs of Copyright Material, Trademarks and People'.

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+1 for that. They used that too in saints row. Some vehicles are easily recognized but their names are changed like the hummer or the murciélago. I think you avoid completely any legal consequences because designs of cars, clothes etc have very weak or no patent restrictions – ibrabeicker Jan 31 '12 at 0:28

On top of my head, the best example I can think of is Grand Theft Auto: All cars have the exact same shape as the real life models but Rockstar Games made up new names for them like "Cheetah" instead of Chevrolet etc..If they did it then I would say you can do the same ?

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They don't have the 'exact' same shape. The Grand Theft Auto series merges bodies across different cars, with a bit of custom work. Just enough so that they feel like they are real world cars, but are non-infringing. – Noctrine Jan 30 '12 at 15:04
I don't think this is a safe answer; "if they did it, you can too" is dangerously speculative. You don't actually know what they did, you're only observing some results of that process. You don't know what legal discussions they had, if any. – Josh Petrie Jan 30 '12 at 16:43
@Josh Exactly, I am sure they weighed the pros / cons of doing this while discussing it with their Lawyers. – Noctrine Jan 30 '12 at 17:48
@Josh - Yes, but I don't think it's realistic to say that they may have contacted all those cars manufacturers to ask if they can model their cars in a video game. Besides, when it comes to weight pros and cons and a eventual court case, well I'd say Rockstar games knowingly produces one of the most immoral games ever but every time a religious oriented association sue them they fight the case and release the next game with twice as much violence and/or sexual I don't think they'd wet their pants while trying to replicate a Chrysler. – user19610 Sep 6 '12 at 10:56

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