By Sayyedeh Parastoo Vakili
Federal law prevents the public from utilizing federal agency logos or seals. However, the issue here is with respect to state agencies. Would it be lawful for the public domain to use state agency logos or letterheads? Would individuals or an entity be able to use obsolete logos and letterheads of state agencies? Under Massachusetts copyright and trademark laws, is there a general doctrine of public domain usage with respect to state logo protection?
The United States government sometimes incorporates names, titles, slogans, symbols, or seals whose use is subject to restrictions by specific laws. Although these restrictions are not related to copyright, the presumption is that these materials are not in the public domain. For instance, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) states that generally, “seals and devices of the Federal Government, Departments, Bureaus, and Independent Agencies are not in the public domain, and cannot be used for other than official business without specific authorization of the agency involved.”
Similarly, many other U.S. government agencies such as NASA have restrictions like the ones from HHS. For instance, NASA material may not be used to state or imply the enforcement by NASA or by any NASA employee of a commercial product, service, or activity, or be used in any matter that might mislead. Furthermore, NASA’s images, audio files and video generally are not copyrighted if the material is used for educational or informational purposes, including photo collections, textbooks, public exhibits and Internet Web pages. This general permission does not extend to use of the NASA insignia logo, retired logotype, and its seal. These images may not be used by persons who are not NASA employees or on products (including Web pages) that are not NASA sponsored.
Furthermore, specific U.S. law prohibits the reproduction of designated logos of U.S. government agencies without written permission. Certain works, particularly logos of government agencies, while not copyrightable, are still protected by other laws similar in effect to trademark laws, protecting indicators of source or quality. For example, 50 U.S.C. § 403m(a) of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo cannot be used without permission. Since restrictions on the use of an agency’s seal are common, policies and regulations tend to give government agencies the authority to protect their logos and seals, and to create penalties for unauthorized use. Some policies include affirmative statements limiting the use of either the agency seal or insignia for purposes directly connected with the agency’s official business, and others create processes for approving other uses by the agency’s governing body or a designated individual. The purpose for such policies is to prevent the public from using altered versions of the agency’s identity.
With respect to state agencies, individuals or entities using state agency logos with permission are prohibited from misleading the public into believing that the state agency is in any way connected with their activities. Although some state agencies may not have specific policies regarding their use of logo, they may argue that since U.S. government seals or other insignia cannot be used without permission of the federal agency, the same rule applies to state agencies. Furthermore, individuals or companies are not allowed to use state agencies’ logos for any purposes, except as specifically provided by license, signed agreement, or other written permission.
A simple letter to the trademark owner requesting permission to use its logo or trademark, with a brief explanation of how and for what purpose it will be used, can mitigate many unforeseen issues that may evolve from unauthorized use of another’s logo or trademark. Also, a government agency’s supplies, equipment, and name could not be used for “personal” use of public resources. Ultimately, it is best policy to refrain from using logos without a specific agreement or permission of the state agency.
Student Bio: Sayyedeh Parastoo Vakili is a Book Review Editor and Staff Member of the Journal of High Technology Law. She is currently a 3L at Suffolk Law. She holds a B.S. in Psychology and Sociology, and a M.S. in Crime and Justice Studies (MSCJS) both from Suffolk University.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.