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Copyrighted, Patented, Registered or Licensed Medals

Copyrighted, Patented, Registered or Licensed Medals. Protection of a medallic design – as original works of art – by a government agency or some authorizing authority. For more than two centuries medallic artists and publishers have attempted to protect their artistic creations; they seek to restrain others from using their designs for unauthorized profits by obtaining some form of legal protection. In France, England and America this was first accomplished by obtaining patents on medal designs. More recently this has been done by copyright or registrations, and a 20th century innovation has been the licensing of medal issuing for specific events.

Patents for medallic designs were first granted in the 18th century. For example, a 1791 French medal of Lafayette was edge lettered: Monneron (Patente) Se.Vende. A. Paris, Chez. Private English manufacturers protected medal designs by registering them and placing the full registered number with a prefix "RFD" or "Reg No" on the medal. In both France and England the patent notice was first placed on the edge; later the notice was placed on the obverse or reverse usually near the rim.

Generally, medalists do not copyright their early work. However, once someone usurps their artistic creations to make commercial use of it without their permission, artists are more than likely to copyright everything thereafter. Apparently this was the case with Theodore Spicer-Simson in England, John Flanagan and James Earle Fraser in America. Other artists could also be cited.

American examples.  One of the first medals protected in America – and one of

the longest copyright lettering on record – appeared on the reverse of a Zachory Taylor medal in the presidential election campaign of 1848. The ten-line, 27-word inscription occupied the entire reverse!

Another early American medal whose artists sought protection for their design was the General Winfield Scott Patriotic Medal of 1861 by C.G. Quilfeldt and J. Lebretton. This 2 1/2-inch medal in white metal bears the legend in tiny letters on the reverse: "Entered According to Act of Congress in the Year 1861 by D.E. Hall in the Clerks Office of the District Court for the Southern District of New York."

Still another American medal, Yorktown Surrender Centennial Medal of 1881, was lettered on the rim: Design Patented July 12, 1881. Again, the notice was later placed inside he rim on the reverse (the usual location thereafter). Several medals were copyrighted for the Columbian Exposition of 1892-3; an example: Boldenweck & Co./Pat'd Oct 7, 1890 (in two lines on Eglit 36A).

Interestingly, the Abraham Lincoln Indian Peace Medal, 1861, [IP-38] bears the word patented on the truncation of Lincoln's bust, placed there by artist Salathiel Ellis. In theory you cannot patent a United States coin or medal design (it belongs to all the people, see below). Perhaps Ellis thought he was protecting his Lincoln portrait from some other commercial use – but the use here was meaningless.

Copyright laws.  Laws concerning protection of art works have changed over the

years. Since 1900 in the United States a design is copyrighted (generally a copyright is thought of as an arrangement of words), but design protection has evolved from design patent – the 19th century form of such protection. Trademarks, logos and service marks

are registered. These marks have appeared on medals, or incorporated in medal designs (or, in rare instances, the medallic design has become the trademark, as in the case of the former Campbell Soup Company logo, used until 1994).  See trademarks.

Licensing occurs when a large public sale of a medal is expected. One artist, or

firm is permitted an exclusive agreement to issue the official medal. The design must bear some unique trademark or design which allows the issuing authority the right to control that medal issue. For example, The International Olympic Committee and each country's Olympic Committee can authorize the official status of any medal by limiting the use of the five-ring Olympic symbol. In addition to Olympic medals, licensing has occurred for world's fairs and certain national events.

More often than not in recent years, however, medal programs have failed under licensing because the organization granted the license had been unfamiliar with managing and marketing of medal programs. Example: a Florida firm was granted the license in 1971 to issued Statue of Liberty medals, and was sold the discarded bronze sheeting off the refurbished statue. Their intent was to issue relic medals and other objects made of this material, but the project failed due to mismanagement and lack of knowledge of the relic medal market.

Modern American copyright.  Today any new design of a medallic item – issued

in the United States – can be copyrighted as a work of art. Copyright application must be made in the name of the artist, but frequently the copyright is assigned to the publisher or issuer. American copyright is administered by the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Medals are copyrighted under class VA, "visual art," they must bear the copyright mark   ©, the year, and the name of the artist, his monogram or symbol.

Works copyrighted after January 1, 1978 are protected for the life of the artist plus 50 years; after that period the medallic design falls into public domain – anyone may use the design. (Previously in America, 1900-78 – the term of copyright was 28 years with one period of renewal for another 28 years, or a total of 56 years.) In 2003 this

50-year period was extended to 70 years after death for an individual or 50 years after first appearance for a corporation or institution (similar to European laws).

Generally, medals issued by a government or struck by a national mint are not

copyrighted. The concept is that such national medals were prepared for all the people, so

all the people own the design, therefore there is no need for protection (despite the Salatheil Ellis Lincoln Medal of 1861 mentioned above).

Coin designs, like medals, are not copyrighted either. (In America the Secret Service is charged with pursuing the counterfeiters of coins, we know of no instance of their pursuing the counterfeiting of national medals.)

Medallic copyright infringement.  While not a common practice in the medallic field, copying copyrighted medallic designs for commercial use has happened. These instances are rare, however, and the author knows of only three such cases. One, a Midwest American bronze company made belt buckles from an early issue of The Society of Medalists. When notified they were using a copyrighted design, the firm voluntarily ceased and destroyed molds, inventory and notified their distributors to do likewise. Damages – should the copyright owner seek these – are three times the profits made from the sales of the copyrighted design.

Most medal designs are not copyrighted. Those that are copyrighted expect a large public sales – The Society of Medalists, as mentioned, also highly commercial medals (like space or sports medals), most all world's fair medals, all Olympic medals and such. Or, the sponsoring organization wants to prohibit unauthorized use of its medals; an example of this is the American Legion For God and Country School Medal (which has design patent number 162,975 edge lettered on each medal).

Finally, those observing worn medals should not confuse the word "copy" on a reissued medallic item (in compliance with the Hobby Protection Act of 1973) for the word "copyright."  See copy.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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