Question: Can a city register its corporate seal as a trademark?
Answer: I promise I’ll tell you—but first—a brief bit of history. The
use of seals began when writing was not common and a coat of arms or other mark
was used to distinguish people. Neat, huh? Accordingly, a city’s corporate seal
is an official mark or insignia that is used to distinguish it from other
cities. A city’s corporate seal can be used to promote or
distinguish the city and its services and is commonly placed on its official
The Minneapolis City Council, for example, adopted its official
seal on June 5, 1878. Minnesota state
law now authorizes cities to use a corporate seal.
Recently the city of Houston, Texas and the District of Columbia filed
federal applications to register their respective corporate seals as trademarks
under the federal trademark law commonly referred to as the Lanham Act.
In short, registering a trademark will protect the owner’s exclusive
right to use the mark.
The federal trademark office and its appeal board denied the applications,
concluding that the Lanham Act prohibits municipalities from registering their
corporate seals as trademarks.
The decision was appealed and on Oct. 1, 2013 the Federal Circuit Court
affirmed the decision below holding that the Lanham Act unambiguously prevents municipalities from registering
their seals. This is probably an unintended consequence of the law. Chances are Congress didn’t have city seals in mind when the language was crafted.
The court did note that a city has other means of “preventing ‘pirates and
cheats’ from using its city seal to deceive the public” and that presumably it
could “pass an ordinance prohibiting such activity.” The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to review the Federal Circuit Court’s decision.
For more summaries of court decisions impacting cities, see the most recent “From
the Bench” column in LMC’s Minnesota Cities magazine.
This blog post conveys general information. It’s not
legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this