Show Nav

Symbol of the United States

On Independence Day (and throughout the year) people show their affection for the United States through symbolism.  However, many people are not aware that the use and reproduction of the famous and important United States symbols are regulated by various laws.

For example, trademarks that consist of or comprise any simulation of the flag, coat of arms, or other insignia of the United States, of any state or municipality, or of any foreign nation are not registrable under §2(b) of the Trademark Act.  Therefore, symbols like the United States flag, the Great Seal of the United States, the Presidential Seal, and seals of government departments are prohibited registration as trademarks.While there are hundreds, if not thousands, of trademarks that include the stars and stripes as part of a trademark, an authentic U.S. flag or U.S. Coat of Arms, cannot receive a trademark registration.  The reason is that flags and coats of arms are formerly adopted as emblems of governmental authority, and are designed to represent such authority.  Incorporating common elements of flags, such as horizontal lines, crosses, or stars, that are readily distinguishable from any national flags are acceptable.  Stylized flags or elements of flags differ from whole or authentic representations of the flag because the stylized version does not convey that the flag is behind or representative of any official authority. In other words, it is not serving as the nation’s source identifier.

On the other hand, occasionally copyrighted works may incorporate names, titles, slogans, symbols, or seals whose utilization is subject to restrictions by other laws. These restrictions have nothing to do with copyright.  As a result, the incorporation of these elements does not prevent copyright registration. However, where the Copyright Office is aware that a use of certain elements within a work may be in violation of existing law, it may inform the applicant of the possible restriction and direct the applicant to the agency involved.

For instance, the use of the Great Seal of the United States is governed by Public Law 91-651, Title 18 of the United States Code. This is a criminal statute with penal provisions, prohibiting certain uses of the Great Seal that would convey or reasonably be calculated to convey a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the Government of the United States or any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof.  Although the U.S. Secretary of State is custodian of the Seal, the Department of State has no authority to grant or withhold permission for use of reproductions, facsimiles, or likenesses of the Seal, or any part thereof. It depends on the circumstances in each case whether the particular use of the Seal would be improper and, as such, it is a function of the Department of Justice to determine whether any particular use violates the Statute. Consequently, the Department of State’s policy has been to discourage use of the Great Seal, except when used for governmental or educational purposes.  In addition, the Department does not provide artwork for its use other than for official State Department material. Other examples of restricted names and characters include: “Olympic,” “Olympiad,” “Woodsy Owl,” and “Smokey Bear.”

Therefore, as you choose to express yourself this Fourth of July, remember that not all uses of symbols of the United States are legally permissible.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

More from IP Insights