Thursday, April 24, 2014

Research Q of the Week: Corporate Seals Face a Trademark Move (4/24)

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 documents.

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 information.

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