We're in the process of building an application that has the ability for a user to store their files within it. When they view a certain page within our product, we need to display a list of all the files they have stored so far. For that page, we have gone for the "Windows Explorer" look and feel and are displaying the filename of the file, along with an icon.

The design specification is suggesting we use the "standard" icon for each file type (so, the icon we use for a word document is the same icon that appears when you've got Microsoft Word installed, and the zip file icon we use is the winzip icon, etc).

I have queried the legal position on doing this, as, in effect, we will be using other companies icons within our application without their express permission. However, I have seen many instances of other applications (for example, WinRAR) which obviously haven't seeked permission to use the icons within their product, as they simply query the operating system for which icon to display.

Please can you advise?

  • I'm not a lawyer, but...there is SO much prior use to match this scenario that I doubt any lawsuit would ever go very far.
    – DA01
    Oct 13, 2010 at 14:25
  • I've removed my answer as it was pointing to the wrong page. I'm sure there are some you can use, see my answer on Stack Overflow.
    – ChrisF
    Oct 13, 2010 at 14:53
  • 2
    One thing to note - using your example of WinRAR, I'm pretty sure that application is using the icons installed on the individual computer associated with the file type. It's not like they are including those icons in their application, they are just making use of an API provided by Windows. Oct 14, 2010 at 19:14
  • As long as you are not shipping these icons with your program, then there isn't an issue. There are functions built into Windows to retrieve and show the currently associated extension/icon for exactly this purpose. If you have an icon for docx on a system, it implies that the user has installed it and therefore has a licence to use it.
    – Neil
    Oct 26, 2018 at 9:18

2 Answers 2


After thinking about this a bit more, I believe we should be able to use the icon, if it is registered against the file type on the end-users machine.

So, if they've got the standard word icon registered against the .doc file extension on their machine, they should see the standard word icon in our application, and we could achieve this by querying windows itself for the correct icon to display.

That way, we're not actually storing the icons ourselves, and are only ever displaying icons that the end user has chosen to assign to those file types (thinking this would fall under fair-use?)

If they had no icon assigned, then we should display a custom icon of our own design that couldn't be considered an infringement of copyright.

  • 1
    I don't think displaying a user's files as a user chooses to display them could possibly have and legal ramifications. I also like that you thought ahead and already considered using the backup image where a natively chosen image isn't available. Oct 14, 2010 at 17:51
  • I have to think that this is similar to writing an MP3 player. Sure, it can play pirated music, but it's whatever the user chooses to do with the application that constitutes the legal action. The MP3 player creator isn't sued because whomever happens to pirate music and use the player. Oct 14, 2010 at 17:52

Perhaps you should ask Microsoft to be safe?

Checkout the section on using sample art and icons.

Maybe they'll be flexible... you're not selling their work.

  • While Microsoft Word was the example given, it sounds as though the user could store any kind of file in the system, so it's not a case of asking Microsoft alone.
    – Bevan
    Oct 14, 2010 at 1:14
  • As Bevan says, we will be using at least seven different vendor's icons :/
    – Sk93
    Oct 14, 2010 at 7:57

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