Who Has Rights To Heraldic Illustrations Submitted to the College of Arms?

There’s often a bit of confusion about the rights to the pictures people submit to the SCA’s College of Arms when registering their personal devices and badges.

Does the SCA “own” or “have rights to” those heraldic images?

What Rights Are At Stake?

I don’t believe that Society policy has ever attempted to claim copyright for individuals’ heraldic submissions — the copyright for all those illustrations remains with the original artists. (Last year I had a concern that the Society might try to apply its ill-advised policy regarding copyrights for the work of officers to any illustrations drawn by heraldic officers as part of the submission consulting process — but thankfully the Society Seneschal explicitly disclaimed any such rights for armory not associated with a branch.)

There is a a claim of rights in branch names and armory in Corporate Policy XII, but this is for a trademark rather than copyright. For example, if someone set up a medieval-themed axe-throwing bar near Chicago named “the Middle Kingdom Pub,” and used a green dragon over a red pale in their advertising, the SCA might have a basis for action against them on the grounds that they were exploiting or diluting the value of the SCA’s organizational identity. (That would be true even if the pub didn’t use art created by anyone involved in the SCA and drew everything from scratch themselves and in their own style, which is the kind of infringement that copyright covers.)

However, there’s always been an understanding that the functioning of the heraldic registration process relies on the College of Arms being able to store and copy and display the contents of submission forms for use in the Society’s heraldic and scribal activities, and that by sending in a submission, you are granting the Society the right to do so in perpetuity. (That grant of permission to store and display your armory was made explicit on the “Laurel 2.0” armory submission forms that were in use a couple of decades ago, but it was implicit before then, and it’s implicit in the current process as well.) This use is non-commercial and seems likely to be considered fair-use, and submitters generally understand that it is necessary to enable conflict checks, armorial identification, and scribal assignments.

Order Badges and Branch Armory

One potential awkward possibility is if the person who illustrates armory for a branch submission (such as a branch’s arms or badges for its awards) decides that they don’t want to allow people to copy the reference images held by the College (either from OSCAR or from the older scanned paper forms) for purposes other than heraldic and scribal use — for example, if they object to their art being used on websites, or order medallions, or bumper stickers.

Asking people to re-draw those images every time using their own artwork would solve the copyright issue, as would establishment of a branch “art repository” which stores reference images made by artists who will allow such copying — but even so it’s likely that at least a few people will wind up downloading and adapting images found in OSCAR, so this seems prone to annoyance all around. Thankfully this issue does not seem to come up with any great frequency.

To avoid future problems, kingdoms and local branches that are submitting arms or badges would be well advised to establish a paper trail showing that the illustrator agrees to let their work be copied and re-used in the future — a quick statement to that end in email is probably sufficient for most purposes.

Using Submissions as Clip Art

A more-common (although thankfully still rare) point of contention is whether allowing future submitters to trace or copy elements from your armory to use in their own submissions is covered by this implicit permission for “internal heraldic and scribal purposes” — many heralds and some submitters assume this is implicitly allowed, but a number of submitters have been startled and annoyed to see a charge they’ve lovingly illustrated and come to think of as a sign of their identity re-appear on someone else’s submission years later.

As the person running the Society’s largest heraldic unofficial clip-art collection, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this subject — for the last seven years, I have carefully avoided copying any elements out of OSCAR for use in the Traceable art, and tried to ensure that contributions coming from sources like the Pennsic art tent are covered by explicit consent from the illustrators for this kind of reuse.

I think it would behoove the College of Arms to have an explicit policy on this, one way or the other, to avoid surprises — either let people know that by submitting an illustration they’re granting permission for elements of their drawing to be copied and reused by others, or else clearly tell heralds and submitters that they should not do this. No doubt either approach would annoy or inconvenience some number of people, but it seems better to be disappointed in advance rather than be unpleasantly surprised after the fact.

One thought on “Who Has Rights To Heraldic Illustrations Submitted to the College of Arms?”

  1. Although it does not come up frequently, the Society’s trademark / service-mark claims on branch names and armory are occasionally used to prevent folks from running unofficial or vituperative websites or social media channels that use branch identities. One example is provided by the Society President’s report from the quarterly meeting of the SCA Board of Directors in February 2012:

    “SCA Trademark and Service Mark enforcement — An SCA member created a Facebook page using the local branch heraldry and local branch name to use as a platform to make inappropriate comments about the Crown of the member’s kingdom. As President, I contacted Facebook and requested that they remove the offensive page since it was using SCA trademarks and service marks without permission. Facebook removed the subject Facebook page within 24 hours. The Board ruled that it is within the authority of the Office of the President to protect and defend SCA’s Trademarks and Service Marks.”

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