New Jersey municipalities may soon have legal redress when another entity uses its insignia or official seal without authorization. Bipartisan legislation is currently pending that directs the Secretary of State to promulgate rules and regulations governing the use of the seal of a local unit.
As highlighted by the bill’s chief sponsor, Assemblyman Ron Dancer, “Federal law excludes towns and counties from the trademark protections enjoyed by private companies. It doesn’t make sense, but a government’s official seal can be misrepresented to mislead or confuse the public, and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
The legislation was proposed in response to a recent decision by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, which confirmed that federal and state law both prohibit the trademark registration of municipal seals. In Renna v. County of Union, Union County attempted to stop a public access television show from using its official county seal by registering it as a trademark. However, as noted by the court, the Lanham Act expressly prohibits the registration of a trademark that “consists of or comprises the flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any State or municipality, or of any foreign nation, or any simulation thereof.” The court also rejected Union County’s claims for infringement of an unregistered mark, finding that “there is a difference between a mark that happens to be unregistered, and one that cannot be registered as a matter of law.”
In response, Assembly Bill 3556 would require the Secretary of State to “adopt rules and regulations governing the usage of the seal of any or local unit to prevent inappropriate or misleading use of the seal and to assure a high quality reproduction thereof.” A “local unit” is defined as a municipality, county, fire district, school district, or solid waste collection district.
Under the proposed legislation, the clerk of a county board of chosen freeholders, municipal clerk, secretary of a board of education, secretary of a board of fire commissioners, or other duly authorized official would be authorized to give their written consent to the use of reproductions of the seal of the local unit in the preparation of commemorative items and for historic, civic, and educational purposes.
A $10 filing fee would be imposed for each application for consent, which would be valid for a maximum of one year from the date of its issuance. Any person not authorized to use, exhibit, or display the seal of a local unit and who does so with intent to convey the false impression of having local unit sponsorship or approval would be subject to a penalty of $50.00.
For more information about the proposed legislation or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.