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Trade mark protection for coats of arms

Coats of arms are widely considered the preserve of Royalty and elite educational institutions, bringing to mind aristocratic families and denoting prestige and nobility. Most people are, therefore, surprised to learn that companies can own a coat of arms and use it as part of their corporate branding strategy.

In this article, our trade mark solicitors consider when a company is eligible for a grant of arms, how and when a coat of arms might be used as part of a branding strategy, and the applicable forms of legal protection.

Who can apply for a grant of arms?

In the UK, the authority for granting new coats of arms lies with the College of Arms. No fixed criteria apply to a grant of arms, but the College of Arms provides a list of factors that will be taken into account when considering an application. In the case of companies, the College states that the applicant must be well established, of sound financial standing and be a leading or respected body in its field. 

Well-known companies that have succeeded in obtaining their own coats of arms include Tesco and Marks and Spencer’s. Tesco’s coat of arms features clovers to represent groceries, and badgers to denote good housekeeping. Marks and Spencer’s opted for an intricate design, including a lion to represent England, an owl for wisdom, and a ladder as a sign of their ongoing aspiration to improve. Beneath the shield is the company’s motto, ‘Strive, Probe, Apply’.

How does a company obtain a coat of arms?

The first step in obtaining a coat of arms is to make a petition, known as a ‘memorial’ to the College of Arms, accompanied by the appropriate fee. In the case of companies, the current fee is a somewhat substantial £24,510. 

If an application is successful, there ensues a lengthy design process involving the applicant and various College of Arms officials, including The Kings of Arms. The Kings of Arms are the highest-ranking heraldic officers and have complete discretion over the design of any coats of arms they grant. The process of producing a coat of arms is complex and long winded, and we need not go into detail here. Suffice to say that once the process has been completed and the coat of arms produced, it is entered into the register of grants of arms and becomes the property of its owner.

Using a coat of arms commercially

Once a company has been granted a coat of arms, it can generally use it however it chooses. An important exclusion relates to the wearing of the arms by employees. The College of Arms explicitly warns that it would be inappropriate for an employee to wear a tie bearing the company’s arms. If a company wishes to use its arms in this way, it must apply for a separate ‘badge’, for which an additional fee is payable.

A coat of arms offers a unique complement to your company’s branding, helping to set the business apart from its competitors. In this regard, its functions are similar to those of a registered trade mark. However, the synonymity between a coat of arms and principles such as honour, prestige and heritage means a grant of arms conveys a sense of gravitas, authority and trustworthiness not necessarily associated with a registered trade mark. A company’s arms are an excellent way through which to convey the brand’s core values, and careful consideration should be given to the symbols and wording chosen.

Marks and Spencer’s and Tesco utilise their coats of arms as part of a wider branding strategy. They do not use them as their primary business logos, but rather in more subtle ways including on their corporate vehicles and letterheads.

How can you protect a coat of arms?

When you have paid almost £25,000 for a coat of arms, and completed the design process, you will understandably be eager to protect it against third parties using it without permission.

Disputes relating to the use of arms are heard by the Court of Chivalry. However, the Court rarely, if ever, sits. In fact, the only modern case heard by the Court was that of Manchester Corporation v Manchester Palace of Varieties Limited back in 1954. Prior to that case, the Court had not sat for over 200 years. Needless to say, it is sensible to look for other means through which to protect your coat of arms.

The most obvious ways to protect a coat of arms are through copyright and registered trade marks. Copyright protects artistic works and arises automatically, without the need for registration. Whether a third party’s use of your coat of arms constitutes copyright infringement will depend on the facts of the situation, including the nature of the use. Speak to us if you are unsure. Our intellectual property solicitors have extensive experience assisting clients in protecting and enforcing their intellectual property rights and will provide concise, straightforward advice on the merits of your position.

It is always sensible to register any form of corporate branding as a trade mark. Trade mark protection is amongst the most powerful of all intellectual property rights and has unparalleled longevity. The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO), the body responsible for processing trade mark applications in the UK, changed its approach to registering coats of arms in 2009. The current position is set out below.

Can you trade mark your coat of arms?

Yes, you can register your own coat of arms as a trade mark. Moreover, it is essential that you do so. By obtaining a registered trade mark for your coat of arms, you will obtain a monopoly right to use it in connection with the goods and services for which it is registered. Any third party using your arms, or anything too similar to them, may be liable for trade mark infringement, allowing you to seek an injunction preventing any further use, and claim damages.

When the IPO receives a trade mark application consisting of a coat of arms, it will advise the applicant to contact the Garter King (the most senior of the Kings of Arms), stating that the application may be affected by the law of arms. However, it will then treat the application in the same way as any other, without waiting for the outcome of any correspondence between the applicant and the Garter King. It is the holders of arms’ responsibility to monitor all trade mark applications and oppose any they deem to be the same as, or too similar to, their own coat of arms. The IPO will consider any such opposition in the usual way, and either uphold or dismiss it, depending on the facts.

Most brand owners implement a trade mark monitoring service, whereby intellectual property experts monitor trade mark applications on their behalf and alert them to any of concern. This is a straightforward, cost-effective way of protecting your brand and taking preemptive as opposed to corrective action against any potentially problematic marks. Contact our intellectual property solicitors for more information on how they can assist you in this regard.

Coats of arms prohibited from registration as a trade mark

Trade mark law specifically prohibits the registration of a trade mark that incorporates the Royal coat of arms or any Royal insignia, unless the applicant has the express permission of the Royal family. Any such application will be immediately rejected.

Summary

A coat of arms can be a distinctive addition to a company’s overall branding strategy. Realistically, however, few companies have pockets deep enough to swallow the £25,000 fee, or possess the social standing and reputation required to achieve a grant of arms. Many companies instead seek to portray elegance and exclusivity by developing corporate logos that are reminiscent of a coat of arms. As long as sufficient care is taken to ensure the logo does not fall foul of the law of arms or trade mark law, this type of branding strategy provides a cost-effective way to stand out from your competitors and depict tradition and prestige. Well-known brands to use such branding include Starbucks, whose logo features a siren wearing a crown, and Ferrari, whose black prancing horse logo is often placed on a shield.

If you are contemplating this type of branding for your company, expert legal advice is crucial. Our trade mark solicitors regularly assist clients in developing commercially effective, legally compliant brand strategies. We will review your ideas and business goals, and consider any possible legal implications under the law of arms, trade mark law or any other relevant legal principles. We will work with you to develop a powerful branding strategy that aligns with your corporate identity, adheres to all applicable laws and is eligible for trade mark protection.

About our expert

Ben Evans

Ben Evans

Head of Trade Marks
Ben is the Head of Trade Marks at Harper James. He qualified as a solicitor in a boutique IP practice in 2011 before joining top-50 firm Blake Morgan in 2012 where he stayed until joining Harper James in 2023.


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