Heraldic Registration in the United States
It is perfectly legal for anyone in the United States to design and adopt an original coat of arms of his or her choice. Not only is there is no legal prohibition against armorial assumption in the United States, but the freedom of the individual to assume arms has also been a time-honored principle observed in most of the Western world ever since the great 14th century legal scholar Bartolo de Sassoferrato listed it as one of the valid ways of acquiring arms. It is only within a few jurisdictions, particularly England and Scotland, that any laws exist against the assumption of arms. These laws have not been applicable in the United States since the attainment of American independence—supposing they were even applicable in the American colonies before that. Thus, under American law, assumed arms enjoy the same validity as those granted by the English College of Arms, Scotland's Lord Lyon, or any other foreign authority.
In some countries, assumed arms can be legally protected against usurpation by putting them on the public record in some fashion. This is often done by registering them with a recognized heraldic society or even simply by executing a unilateral legal document witnessed and sealed by a notary. (A country-by-country guide can be found at Foreign Armorial Grants and Registrations for Americans.) Generally speaking, this is not the case in the United States, where there are no statutes providing for the protection of armorial bearings (other than those registered as trademarks or as organizational insignia under state or federal law) and an insufficient record of jurisprudence on the subject to provide any meaningful judicial precedent. Of course, the same lack of legal protection applies in the United States to arms granted by the English kings of arms or other foreign heralds as to those assumed by private initiative.
Why Would I Register My Arms?
Many Americans who have designed and assumed their own arms, or inherited arms traditionally used by their families, find it desirable to put their arms on the record in some fashion. There are several reasons someone might want to do this despite the lack of clear legal protection:
- Registration, especially if the registering organization publishes a widely disseminated roll of arms, can help prevent unintentional usurpation by persons designing new arms in the future.
- Registration establishes a date certain when the arms were in use as a hedge in case a legal protection regime is established in the future. Customarily, the person who first uses a particular coat of arms in any given jurisdiction is considered to have a superior right to it. If the time comes when it is possible to bring legal action to protect armorial bearings, it will probably be important to be able to document the first use of the arms. Even absent a legal protection regime, being able to show prior use of the arms may be persuasive in informal resolution of disputes over title to the arms.
- Registration leaves a record by which descendants and relatives doing genealogical and heraldic research in the future can discover the arms and verify their right, if any, to use them.
- Registration with a serious heraldic organization forces the armiger to stabilize the design, which ensures consistent future emblazonments; the registered blazon (technical description of the arms) allows the arms to be preserved and transmitted in written form.
- Registration with a serious organization can also improve the quality of the design. Reputable American heraldic institutions usually will not accept arms that flagrantly break the rules of heraldic composition or those that have various adornments that are inappropriate according to American heraldic customs.
- Some registries allow the armiger to describe and preserve the design history and rationale for future generations.
- Most heraldic organizations will permit arms to be registered in honor of a parent or grandparent, making the arms an enduring public memorial to the ancestor as well as providing a common symbol of family identity to all the honoree's offspring.
- Each addition to the private armorial registers in the United States strengthens their credibility as repositories of heraldic bearings, both in the U.S. and in the wider international heraldic community. The more often American armigers register their arms with American organizations, and the longer they do so, the more we solidify this practice as an integral part of American heraldic tradition.
- Registration might serve as evidence to support a right to the arms should cases arise under one of the few areas in which arms enjoy protection under U.S. law, such as federal regulations prohibiting the unauthorized use of armorial bearings on alcoholic beverage labels.
- Finally, the most valuable education on the art and science of heraldry comes from seeing and studying the arms and artwork of others. Putting one's arms on public record perpetuates this process by providing examples for future generations of heraldists to study.
Why Not Trademark or Copyright My Arms?
Many people ask why they cannot protect their arms in the United States under either the copyright or trademark laws.
There are several problems with relying on copyright to protect armorial bearings. First of all, U.S. courts have consistently held that copyright to a work of art subsists only in the specific rendering, not to the general idea of what is depicted. An artist may hold the copyright to a painting of a blue shield with a golden deer jumping over a silver log, but this does not prevent another artist from painting the same scene in a different style. Thus, a specific emblazonment of a coat of arms may be copyrighted, but that will not prevent another artist from emblazoning the same arms with a different shape of shield, a different rendering of any animals in the design, changing the helm, changing the mantling, or any other alteration that a court might find substantial enough to constitute a new work of art. Even a slight difference might suffice in the eyes of a court. Some have suggested that perhaps the blazon could be copyrighted, but what is subject to copyright is a new creative work, and the courts have found that a basic description of a creative work is not necessarily creative in itself. In any case, there is sufficient flexibility in how arms are blazoned that it would be easy to evade any protection offered by asserting copyright in the blazon.
Even if it were possible to copyright the general idea of a particular coat of arms, and extend that protection to all derivative depictions of the same arms, one would still have to show that the design of the arms required creative effort. This would not apply to arms inherited from ancestors, or to arms granted by foreign sources. Other issues include the fact that copyrights can be bought and sold; customarily personal arms cannot. Finally, copyright in any work exists for only a limited time. While recent legislation has extended the duration of copyright, it eventually expires. But the main thing that distinguishes personal armorial bearings from other symbols is that they are indefinitely hereditary in the same family.
It is possible to register one's arms as a trademark under state or federal law. The problem here is that a registered trademark is valid only if it is actually used in one's trade or profession. Most armigers do not intend to use their arms for that purpose. Moreover, the same problems concerning the extent to which a design must be altered to constitute a different design arise in the trademark area as well; a court adjudicating a case will not be likely to ask whether the marks are sufficiently differenced under the law of arms but whether a reasonable consumer, seeing the two emblazonments, is likely to confuse one with the other. Even if the arms are used in business, once they are registered as the trademark they are typically tied to the business. If the business is sold, the trademark usually goes to the new owner. Thus, if a business owner has registered his arms as the trademark of his company, and he dies and the company is bought out as part of the estate settlement, his children may find that they have no right to their hereditary arms.
Where Can I Register My Arms?
It is possible under the laws of some states to register the insignia of non-profit associations with specified agencies of the state government, usually the office of the secretary of state. It is then unlawful for others to use such registered insignia without the approval of the registrant. Some members of the American Heraldry Society have registered their arms under these as the insignia of, for example, "The Society of Descendants of Ephraim Wilson of Doeville, California." In principle, such a registration should provide legal protection against usurpation, although we are not aware of any instances where the matter has been tested in court. The fees, term for which the registration is valid, and other specifics vary from state to state, so check the statutes of your state of residence if you are interested in pursuing this form of registration. (Note that this does not provide all the benefits of expert review, publication, etc., offered by registration with a heraldic society.)
We are aware of four organizations in the United States that maintain registries of personal coats of arms, listed below in the order in which they were established. Information on pricing is current as best we were able to determine as of the dates indicated in each entry. Check directly with the organization concerned for current information.
The New England Historic Genealogical Society, founded in 1845, established its Committee on Heraldry in 1864. The Committee, which is the oldest non-governmental heraldic organization in the world, registers or records arms “rightfully borne” within the United States and by U.S. citizens abroad. The committee accepts applications in four categories:
- The term “registration” is applied only to arms of pre-1917 origin borne by an immigrant to the United States. To register such arms, the applicant must show that the immigrant had the legal right to bear the arms in his country of origin. If he bore them by inheritance from an ancestor, a documented pedigree proving his descent from a person who can be documented as entitled to the arms must be provided. The applicant need not himself be a descendant of the immigrant, although, of course, if he is not, he would not be entitled to use the arms.
Arms in the other three categories are “recorded,” not “registered.” These include:
- Arms obtained from a foreign source subsequent to 1917. This would include arms granted by the English College of Arms or other foreign heraldic authorities. Documentary proof of the foreign grant, registration, or certification must be provided.
- Arms assumed and used in the past within the United States. The fact of such use must be proved and the earliest known use of the arms documented with the application.
- Arms newly assumed by the applicant, or by the applicant on behalf of his father or grandfather. In this case, the applicant states his intention that the arms be used by himself and his descendants (or the descendants of his father or grandfather) according to the law of arms in force at the time the United States was settled. An explanation of the choice of design must accompany the application. The committee also records arms assumed by associations, companies, and other corporate bodies.
Arms registered with the Committee (i.e., those in the first category, arms of foreign origin dating to before 1917) are periodically published in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, then subsequently collected and printed in booklets (10 thus far) under the title A Roll of Arms, Registered by the Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historical Genealogical Society. In 2013 the NEHGS published a collected edition of the entire roll.
The Committee on Heraldry currently charges $200 for registering or recording a coat of arms in any of the categories above. This covers only the costs of defraying the Committee’s operating expenses; no certificate of registration or emblazonment of the arms is provided. More information and instructions for contacting the Committee are available on its website.
- If arms are claimed by inheritance, genealogical evidence supporting a right to the arms must be submitted for review by society's genealogy committee.
- Assumed arms must pass review by the society's heraldry committee for adherence to the laws and traditions of heraldry, lack of obvious usurpation, and the broad limits of good taste. Previous registration by private registries may speed the process but is not a guarantee of approval. The design of arms that are found unacceptable can be amended and resubmitted without additional fee.
- Arms granted by a recognized official authority, such as the College of Arms, generally require the submission of a copy of the granting document. In general, the Society will not register arms assumed by persons living in countries with an established granting authority (i.e. England, Scotland, Canada, South Africa).
After approval and registration, the petitioner will receive a certificate with a new illustration of the arms. Beginning in 1967-68, the society has occasionally issued printed installments of The Augustan Society Roll of Arms, in which selected arms from the society’s registry are included. The most recent installment (the fourth) was published in 1986. Registering arms with the Augustan Society does not guarantee that they will be published in the Roll of Arms.
Applications for registration may be requested from The Augustan Society, Inc., P.O. Box 771267, Orlando, FL 32877-1267 or by e-mail. For further details and contact information, see the Augustan Society’s website.
The American College of Heraldry was founded in 1972 and subsequently chartered as a non-profit corporation. The college registers personal and organizational arms, including those granted or certified by foreign heraldic authorities, those borne historically by families without having been granted by an official authority, as well as newly designed and assumed arms. Registration with the College is limited to U.S. citizens or residents and those with significant business or personal connections in the United States.
The College’s basic registration fee, as of early 2015, is $325, or $350 if combined with membership in the College. Registrants receive a certificate of registration and a black-and-white line drawing of the arms suitable for duplication. In addition, for those requiring it, the registration fee includes assistance with the design and blazoning of a new coat of arms.
Arms registered with the ACH are published in the organization’s quarterly journal, The Armiger’s News, and periodically collected and printed in book form as The Heraldic Register of America.
Further information and application forms for registration can be found on the American College of Heraldry website. The College's executive director is David Robert Wooten.
The United States Heraldic Registry was established in 2005 to provide free on-line registration of inherited, granted, or assumed arms in the United States. Registration is available to individuals, private organizations, other corporate bodies, and local, state, and federal government entities. The Registry publishes an online database of registered coats of arms which can be searched using names and blazon keywords. For a modest fee, registrants may order a computer-generated certificate of registration. The Registry also offers heraldic design assistance.
The United States Heraldic Registry was founded by Michael Swanson and its operation was taken over in 2014 by Philip Blanton. For further information, see the Registry's website.