GOP, Dems look to expand trademark rights for cities and states

A bipartisan group of House and Senate members have proposed legislation that would give cities and states the right to trademark their flags, official seals or other government insignia.

Under the Trademark Act of 1946, also called the Lanham Act, state and local governments can trademark certain marks, like FDNY and NYPD. But the law doesn't allow them to trademark their flags or other emblems that are associated with cities or city agencies.

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Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas) have sponsored legislation, H.R. 3713, to let local governments protect these official seals. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have joined them with a companion bill in the Senate.

New York officials say their city's seal needs to be better protected both for reasons related to public safety and merchandising.

"After 9/11, we could readily prosecute counterfeiters and infringers who trafficked in the FDNY or NYPD marks, but when an item carries our seal, we had no such ability,” said Michael Cardozo, Corporation Counsel of the New York City Law Department.

Katherine Winningham, senior counsel at the Law Department's Legal Counsel division, said the lack of protection for the city seal makes it harder to crack down on people who might make counterfeit permits and parking badges.

"There is some degree of counterfeiting going on, which would be easier to stop if we had federal registration," she said. "If someone outside the city decides to sell flags with the city seal on it, there's nothing I can do."

Kirsten Donaldson, an aide to Jeffries, said protections for New York's official seal would allow the city to register that seal with the federal government. That, in turn, would allow federal officials to watch for counterfeit goods coming into the United States.

The bill has appeal to people outside New York City, as other cities across the country have been fighting to protect their official emblems. For example, the city of Houston, Texas, was involved in a court case to protect their insignia, which explains the support from Poe.

That case resulted in a decision by a federal judge that cities cannot register their official seals under the Lanham Act, and that ruling prompted Jeffries and other members to write their legislation to broaden the reach of the act.

Rebecca Sternhell, who helps represent the New York City Law Department in Washington, said she expects members to push for floor action on the bill early next year. She said she's optimistic because of the bipartisan nature of the bill, and because all sponsors are members of either the House or Senate Judiciary committees.

Donaldson in Jeffries's office was similarly optimistic, and said the House could even decide to pass it as a non-controversial suspension bill.