Using Social Media Icons: What Copyright Allows You to Do

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2021-02-09

Newsletters, websites, business cards, advertisements — social media icons are everywhere. These icons are shorthand symbols that can send users to your company (or personal) profile on different social networks, such as Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. It’s fair to say that most people know what is going to happen if they click on the Facebook icon in a company’s email or newsletter.


Because of their widespread use, many people now expect to see these icons on the outlets mentioned above, and in many more forms of communication. These icons are neat, easily recognizable, and efficient at providing information quickly. You might even use these icons yourself!


Recently, an author called our office asking how he could incorporate these icons into his book. He wasn’t sure if he was allowed to or if he was using them properly. It was an intriguing question, and after some discussion, he decided it would be best to seek permission to use the logos in this printed form.


So, how can you use social media icons (for example, on a business card, on a website, or in a brochure) and when do you need permission?



Common Placements


All organizations, businesses, and services have specific links to their social media platforms. On the web, you can usually find such social icons in the header or footer of the website. It’s also common to place them in the signatures of emails, and footers of newsletters, since the goal of a newsletter is to promote services, content, or products.


On business materials such as business cards and print ads, social icons can function as valuable space-savers and convey to the reader the information they need to find you online. It’s common to include the social icon of each social network next to your handle on each respective network.


And in both these placements — online and in business materials — there are certain rules you need to follow.



Best Practices


Go to the Source

Because images of social icons are so widely available now online, you may not realize that the use of these icons is still protected by copyright, and thus subject to very specific rules. If you’re going to use a social media icon, it’s best to go right to the source: the social network itself. The company websites should have a page where people can access the icons and download them — that way, you know you’re going to be using the right logo.


But be sure to read their usage guidelines before you use the icon, because you want to make sure you’ll be using it correctly.


Follow Usage Guidelines

Once you are ready to place the icon on your website, brochure, advertisement, etc., make sure you refer to the sizing and spacing requirements the company has set out. For example, Twitter’s usage guidelines dictate that clear space surrounding the logo should be at least 150% of the width of the logo itself. In terms of size, the minimum size you can make the icon is 32 pixels. Similarly, YouTube icons must be at least 24 dp in height online and 3.1 mm high in print.


… And Never Alter!

Here’s the important part: do NOT alter the icon in any way! Don’t rotate it, make it a different colour, or edit it in any way, shape, or form. This kind of usage is strictly prohibited. For example, if you wanted to use the Twitter icon, you can only use the icon in blue and white (or, if colour printing is not an option, black is also allowed), so making it red to match your branding would not be allowed.


The guidelines also prohibit changing the typeface (such as changing the font used for the YouTube name when displayed with the icon), changing the kerning (space between letters), or adding visual effects such as a shadow.


Don’t forget, these icons are trademarked and copyrighted, so altering them without permission is illegal — even if you’ve seen other outlets or companies do it first (adding a speech bubble to the Twitter bird is a popular alteration that is not allowed).


Request Permission if You Are Not Sure

If you’re using the icon in a medium outside of your basic marketing materials (business cards, print ads, etc.) or a static online image (such as on a website footer), it’s best to seek permission. YouTube specifically states that if you are using the icon or logo on TV, in a movie, or yes, in a book, you must seek permission from them.



Why All the Fuss?


Many people might think, “What’s the big issue if I make the Twitter icon green to match my website?” or “So what if I rotate the Pinterest logo a little?”


Because these icons have become so ingrained in our daily lives, it’s easy to think you have a sort of “fair usage” of them — after all, it is MY Instagram page, MY YouTube channel. But in reality, these icons are just like any other brand logo. You wouldn’t just up and change Coca-Cola’s typeface if you wanted to use their logo, would you? The same principle applies to social media icons.


When you’re using any content that wasn’t created by you, it’s best to follow the guidelines carefully. And if you aren’t sure, ask permission. Why take the risk?




For more on permissions, check out our blogs You Need Permission to Reprint That! What This Means & Why Authors Must Pay Attention to It, and Navigating the World of Permissions Editing.