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Pentagon Orders Service Seals Off Wreaths Across America Trucks

wreaths-across-america-trucks-wal-mart

The Pentagon tells Walmart to stop using military seals on its Wreaths Across America trucks.

Stars and Stripes (“DOD asks Walmart to lose logos from trucks used for Wreaths Across America“):

The U.S. Department of Defense has asked Walmart to remove military logos from 16 corporate tractor-trailers used to carry wreaths to veterans’ graves for Wreaths Across America.

The DOD says Walmart was violating its trademarks.

The trucks sport logos for the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard above a field of snowy, wreath-covered headstones.

Jessica O’Haver, program manager for the trademark licensing office of the Marine Corps, said at least four of the five logos are official seals intended for use only by the DOD. A Marine spotted one of the trucks, took a picture and alerted her office back in December.

Walmart says the logos will be down by Memorial Day.

“It was never our intention to create controversy; we only wanted to honor the brave men and women who fight or have fought for our country,” said Walmart spokeswoman Dianna Gee. “We use those trucks for specific, veteran-related events. We will be replacing the logo with the new design (for Wreaths Across America) in the near future.”

Gee said it doesn’t diminish Walmart’s commitment to the charity, and O’Haver indicated there were no hard feelings.

“Walmart is very, very pro-military and they support us a lot, and so we work with them a lot,” O’Haver said. “We certainly appreciate all that Wreaths Across America does to honor veterans and those who have fallen. It’s just we can’t appear to officially endorse the program with our logos.”

I was only vaguely aware of this program but this strikes me as a petty move by DoD. Beyond that, how can taxpayer-owned intellectual property be trademarked? Aside from classified materials, to which public access is naturally controlled (or, at least, attempted to be controlled), government-produced documents, photographs, and whatnot are instantly in the public domain. How can an agency seal be trademarked?

Obviously, the use of government seals for fraudulent purposes can and should be policed. But who is it that would see these trucks and think Walmart was an official government agency? And I’m finding photographs of these trucks dating at least as far back as 2010; surely, if this were a problem, someone would have noticed before now.

UPDATE:  In comments, Butch Bracknell, an attorney just retired from the Marine Corps, notes that the Federal Government owns all manner of intellectual property in the form of patents. He’s right. Indeed, the Federal Government owns more patents than any other entity.

My sense that everything produced by the Federal Government is public domain was colored by my more-or-less correct understanding of copyright law. As noted in the article “Copyright and Other Rights Pertaining to U.S. Government Works” at USA.gov, which I’m reproducing in full below because I can,

A United States government work is prepared by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of that person’s official duties.

It is not subject to copyright in the United States and there are no copyright restrictions on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display of the work. Anyone may, without restriction under U.S. copyright laws:

  • reproduce the work in print or digital form;
  • create derivative works;
  • perform the work publicly;
  • display the work;
  • distribute copies or digitally transfer the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.

There are exceptions, however:

  • Other people may have rights in the work itself or in how the work is used, such as publicity or privacy rights. Privacy and publicity rights protect the interests of the person or people who may be the subject of the work. To learn more about the difference between copyright and privacy and publicity rights, see the Library of Congress website.
  • You cannot use U.S. government trademarks or the logos of U.S. government agencies without permission. For example, you cannot use an agency logo or trademark on your social media page.
  • You cannot use a U.S. government work in a way that implies endorsement by a U.S. government agency, official, or employee. For example, you cannot use a photo of a government official wearing your product in an advertisement.
  • Works prepared for the U.S. government by independent contractors may be protected by copyright, which may be owned by the independent contractor or by the U.S. government.
  • Not all information that appears on U.S. government websites is considered to be a U.S. government work. For example, it is possible that some or all of the text, trademarks, logos, or images on a U.S. government website may be protected intellectual property not owned by the U.S. government, but used by permission of the rights holder. To ensure that you don’t mistakenly use protected intellectual property from one of our websites, check with the agency or program that manages the website.
  • The U.S. government work designation does not apply to works of U.S. state and local governments. Works of state and local governments may be protected by copyright.
  • Copyright laws differ internationally. While a U.S. government work is not protectable under U.S. copyright laws, the work may be protected under the copyright laws of other jurisdictions when used in these jurisdictions. The U.S. government may assert copyright outside of the United States for U.S. government works.

I’m unable to find a similarly helpful article on trademark law.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    You have to defend a trademark or lose it. The DoD could have licensed the use for $1 each, but they couldn’t get the use let go unchallenged.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  2. DrDaveT says:

    I have to disagree with you here, James. Setting aside for a moment the use of the word “trademark” (which I agree might be the wrong concept to apply), I’m pretty sure you don’t believe that just anyone should be able to send you a letter on official IRS letterhead, or wear an FBI uniform while knocking on your door. As you said,

    Obviously, the use of government seals for fraudulent purposes can and should be policed.

    It’s pretty obvious to me that ANY use of an official seal, official insignia, badge, logo, etc. is fraudulent if it is not condoned by the agency that owns that insignia/badge/logo. It strongly implies that the wearer is acting either on behalf of or with the official approval of the owner of the insignia. Government agencies have a duty to clearly distinguish between things they are doing or supporting, and things they are not doing or supporting, and control of official insignia is part of doing that.

    I do agree that this isn’t about “trademark”. As you note, the government doesn’t have intellectual property in the usual sense, and it confuses the issue to use terms like “trademark” and “licensing”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. Butch Bracknell says:

    The govt owns lots of items of intellectual property including thousands of patents. Where does this concept that the government can’t own intellectual property come from? If the govt places something in the public domain it has abandoned protection but that does not mean everything the govt produces or owns is instantly in the public domain. If the government couldn’t own patents the Sandia labs and similar facilities might be out of business. I’m sure the NSA owns thousands of patents.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Butch Bracknell: Good point. I’ve updated the post. I was under the mistaken impression that what applied to copyrights also applied to patents and trademarks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Maggie says:

    I am having a problem understanding why anyone should care. Is it this? is it that???? I am more worried about stuff that gets our service men killed, Anyone who knows Walmart and other big conglomerates knows that the reason for this or any other charitable scheme is to get a tax write off. But again, who cares about that if it truly contributes to charitable works? Individuals have the same tax break, just on a smaller scale, and some of them abuse it too..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. Liberal Capitalist says:

    I care.

    So, they use it there, and it goes unchallenged.

    Then could they start using the logos elsewhere?

    It becomes what would be an apparent endorsement, rather than use without permission.

    It’s not the first time a logo has been trouble for them:

    http://www.law360.com/articles/251976/wal-mart-settles-trademark-fight-over-smiley-face-logo

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Hal Kiah says:

    I’m a veteran of 12 years in the Air Force, and the way I see it?? What Walmart is doing is honoring our military personnel with the greatest of respect by providing a service that others will not. To pine and Whine because someone is displaying the emblems of OUR troops, is just that, WHINING, Being a Baby, stuck up, Liberal PEA-BRAIN! So far as I’m concerned, if you (whomever the sorry excuse for a soldier that initiated this mess) don’t want to see OUR nations military emblems displayed, in honor, then GET OUT OF THE UNIFORM!! YOU are a disrespectful, Useless, Undeserving, piece of worthless meat! HONOR our veterans, Walmart is, and so are many others! I’m no great Walmart fan, but I AM a veteran, and Walmart has been doing this for Years, leave well enough alone, our country NEEDS to remember our troops, and be reminded of the service and sacrifice they have made for this country, not Spit on, like our Vietnam veterans were, when They returned home. Where is this so-called “soldier”, I’d personally like to kick him/her in the backside for such crap, along with the pentagon moron that encouraged this action. (must be a civilian with NO military experience whatsoever. SMH

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 11

  8. anjin-san says:

    @ Hal Kiah

    You want to know what’s disrespectful? A for profit enterprise like Wal-Mart using US Military emblems for marketing purposes, especially without permission, something their marketing, branding, and legal teams know damn well is necessary. And make no mistake, this is marketing, and by using the emblems, they are implying a relationship/endorsement which does not exist.

    Thy using Wal-Mart’s logo without permission. Their legal staff will be on you in a hot city minute.

    Your little rant does the Armed Forces no credit at all. Most Americans do appreciate the sacrifices made by service members. That being said, we have all-voulenteer forces, everyone in them joined on their own free will. So spare us the lectures on how much appreciation and support we owe. That is something that is every individuals choice to give, or not, as they see fit.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  9. KM says:

    @Hal Kiah:

    I come from a proud military tradition and am not in uniform right now only due to my grandfather’s request (he specifically asked for me to be the first civilian PhD in the family). I’m honored to be descended from a family tree that has seen the beaches of Normandy, received a Medal of Honor, helped with the Lipizzaner operation, and has served with distinction in every conflict around the globe America has had a hand in. I have cousins in harm’s way right now.

    You and people like you are part of the reason military service gets such negative reception. Yes, it is a honor to serve. Yes, it can be dangerous. Yes, it can be something no civilian can understand and appreciate. But the uniform is not a free pass for the rest of your life and if you had a single ounce of responsibility in you, you’d know that. It’s a piece of cloth; it’s what’s underneath that matters. A scumbag can don Class A’s as easily as a hero can. It is not a mark of inherent character; it’s an outward symbol of their damn job. The person who spends their entire hitch in the mailroom shouldn’t get the same bragging rights (and thus deference) as someone who’s been shot at regularly!! There are criminals on base right now – that’s what the MPs are for. Don’t act like just because you joined up means you’ve been rendered sinless for the rest of your life.

    YOU are a disrespectful, Useless, Undeserving, piece of worthless meat!

    You are disrespectful, sir. Arrogant. Respect is earned. You have done nothing here but hurt your cause and disrespect everyone who’s unfortunate enough to have read you words and the veterans you claim to represent. Have some honor and dignity – if you are truly a veteran, it’s your due anyways.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  10. Electroman says:

    It’s in the second bullet point under “exceptions”.

    You cannot use U.S. government trademarks or the logos of U.S. government agencies without permission. For example, you cannot use an agency logo or trademark on your social media page.

    Putting a USAF seal on your POV’s bumper, for example, was seriously frowned on in my days in the Chair Force.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. ASK says:

    I used to work for SSA. For obvious reasons, SSA does not want its name or logo associated with any commercial organization, and specific prohibitions appear in the statutes. Similar law or regulation may exist for other agencies.

    http://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/ssact/title11/1140.htm

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. anjin-san says:

    If Wal-Mart really wants to do something to honor the military, how about providing some financial support for the survivors of deceased service members? They could use some of the money they save by paying their employees crap wages.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0