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I've been doing some research into this symbol (part of ISO 7010), which I'd like to use:

enter image description here

but I can't find out whether I'm allowed to or not. Is the glyph in the public domain? What about similar commonly-used symbols?

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Good question - I've never been clear on this. You can find the symbol itself on the ISO site (iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:grs:2627208) but there is no obvious copyright note, and the "purchase" links actually prompt you to send an email for a quote...! –  e100 Jul 23 '12 at 14:47
    
Would the fact that it has a purchase button indicate it isn't free to use? –  Lasse V. Karlsen Jul 26 '12 at 17:09
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2 Answers

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+50

Apparently, Wikimedia Commons considers it freely usable for all purposes, i.e. effectively in the public domain.

Specifically, they base this on the wording on the Japanese Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation website (the "green man running through the door" sign was originally designed in Japan, by one Yukio Ota, before it became an international standard), which says (emphasis mine):

"The symbols presented in these guidelines can be freely used by anyone and can be accessed at the Web site (http//www.ecomo.or.jp) of the Eco-Mo Foundation. However, registering these symbols as your trademark or design can be a copyright infringement. If you have any questions, please contact us."

To be safe, I would suggest basing your sign on the specific design available from the Eco-Mo Foundation website, just to avoid any possibility of anyone else claiming copyright, however tenuous, on any variant design. Also, as noted on the website, you should not pass off the sign as your own design nor use it in a trademark. Of course, if you want to be sure, you could always e-mail the Eco-Mo Foundation and ask.


Moved from comments below: The same answer presumably applies to all the other symbols found on the Eco-Mo website. Beyond that, I'd be hesitant to generalize in the absence of evidence. I haven't been able to find a blanket statement by, say, the ISO saying that all their standard symbols would be free to use (for any purpose, or at least their intended one), even if the fact that they are standardized symbols does strongly suggest it.

Furthermore, many standard symbols may have local laws (or even international treaties) regulating their use independently of copyright, which can further complicate things. For example, the Red Cross symbol is specifically protected by the Geneva Conventions and implementing national legislation, despite it being essentially ineligible for copyright due to its simplicity, and the various Red Cross societies have been known to occasionally sue misusers of the symbol.

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+1 Their website is well worth browsing, lots of really excellent pictograms available in .eps format. Not sure I like their "Safety evacuation area" sign however, to me it looks more like "Warning: Pit trap"... –  user568458 Jul 26 '12 at 14:40
    
Great stuff. Could you perhaps expand the answer to cover similar commonly used symbols? –  e100 Jul 26 '12 at 14:43
    
Thanks @IlmariKaronen - that would be even better edited into your answer. I think I'll edit the question to make it slightly more general. –  e100 Jul 26 '12 at 15:25
    
@IlmariKaronen I think that's more to do with slapping it on your helicopter to evade armies type of thing, which would undermine the work of the Red Cross. –  fredley Jul 26 '12 at 15:56
    
@fredley: Well, it's also about using the Red Cross symbol on products you sell, which is kind of understandable given that they derive part of their funding from licensing it. –  Ilmari Karonen Jul 26 '12 at 16:01
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The issue is not one of copyright so much as legal requirement. International and national standard pictograms are not owned; they are mandated (or advised, depending on the jurisdiction and the application). In the US, for example, there are OSHA requirements for the workplace. The EU has its own signage regulations which are based on the ISO 7010 standard.

Specialized signage companies (note that the OSHA link specifically advises the use of such companies) produce signage which is exactly in compliance with local regulations as regards size, color and the exact art. The evolution of standard signs is interesting in itself; many of them have a long history, particularly in electrical and fire safety.

As with almost all government-funded or government-produced items, these are free for anyone to use, but if you are creating a signage program for a warehouse you had better look up the standards and adhere to them. Also in line with standard government practice, you pay for the books, catalogs and codes if you want paper copies, but regulatory guidance is often available online. If you Google "safety signs and signals", you'll find a useful PDF document that I can't link here because its URL has a numeric IP address.

Here is an extract from page 9 of the PDF (from the UK Health and Safety Executive) that specifically addresses pictograms:

37 Small differences from the pictograms or symbols shown in Schedule 1 of the Regulations are acceptable, providing they do not affect or confuse the message that the sign conveys.

38 If Schedule 1 of the Regulations does not contain a suitable signboard (see pages 10-16) then it is acceptable to design your own, providing it conforms to the general principles described in the Regulations.

Many sign companies have labels or other types of warning signs they have developed themselves, and they retain copyright on the complete finished product, but the pictograms themselves, where they are part of national or international standards, do not bear royalty or attribution copyright requirements, nor do they bear a copyright mark.

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