Remembrance Day Poppies: Who Can Produce and Sell Them, including Designs Incorporating Them?

Photo: Author (Poppy paid for!)

I was at a store a couple of days ago and as is common at this time of year, there was the tray of Remembrance Day poppies on offer, with the proceeds going to the Royal Canadian Legion. I slipped in my $5 donation (is that enough in these days of inflation?) and took my GST-free decoration. It will no doubt be the first of several that I purchase this year as the poppies, at least in Canada, seem cunningly designed to fall off your jacket or sweater at the first possible opportunity. The parking lots of shopping centres are littered with them this time of year. One solution to the enormous poppy attrition rate is to pierce the black centre of the poppy with one of those small Canadian flag lapel pins—you know, the ones with a small spike secured by a tiny plate on the reverse side of whatever garment you are wearing—thus ensuring a degree of permanence at least through November 11. But then the Legion would get to sell you only one poppy per season instead of the multiple poppies required to keep up with the poppy-wearing Joneses.

Maybe the Legion, which holds the Canadian trademark on the red poppy when used for commemorative purposes, could design a better mouse trap–but then that would cost more to produce and would result in fewer sales, further reducing the flow of funds dedicated to veteran’s welfare. British poppies, which are larger than the Canadian version and usually adorned with a bit of fake greenery, perhaps don’t fall off as easily. I don’t actually know, as I have never worn one and am not sure how they are attached. Perhaps one of my British readers could enlighten me as to the relative lapel longevity of British poppies. These are also trademarked, and are marketed exclusively by the Royal British Legion, manufactured by an enterprise staffed by veterans and originally started by the Legion, the Poppy Factory. Despite the trademark protection for commemorative poppies in Canada and Britain, not to mention copyright protection of the designs of various products displayed on their websites, unauthorized versions proliferate at this time of year, marketed through various online platforms. Last year, the CBC reported that the Royal Canadian Legion took note of at least 1600 violations of its trademark, Did you buy a poppy online? It may be one of hundreds of unauthorized products”.

The controversy over misappropriation of the symbolic poppy are as ubiquitous at this time of year as the poppies are themselves in the fields of Flanders in summer. While there are lots of unauthorized versions of the poppy motif out there, as a consumer you have a choice. Yes, you can buy your poppy memorabilia through Etsy, Amazon, or whatever, or you could go directly to the Legion websites; the Poppy Store of the Royal Canadian Legion or the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Shop to get your poppy-fix. The prices are competitive, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing where your funds are going.

© Hugh Stephens, 2023. All Rights Reserved

Over the past few years, I have written an annual blog post around November 11. If you are not aware of the history of the poppy campaign and the challenges it has faced from unauthorized competition, here are some updated excerpts from my original Remembrance Day blog post in 2019.

Remembrance Day Poppies and Intellectual Property Controversies

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns on the western front in Europe fell silent. An armistice was declared. Germany didn’t formally surrender although it soon collapsed, and the 1919 Treaty of Versailles treated it as a defeated country (with the results twenty years later that we all know about). Thus Armistice Day, now known as Remembrance Day in many countries including Canada, the UK and Australia, and Veteran’s Day in the US, was born.

Today, in particular in Canada and the UK, Remembrance Day is marked by the wearing of poppies. They spring up on the lapels of TV news broadcasters, politicians, and members of the public like mushrooms in autumn. In the US, although they are not so ubiquitous as north of the border or in Britain, they are more typically worn on Memorial Day, which is in May, and in Australia and New Zealand I am told that poppies generally blossom around Anzac Day, April 25. It is probably fairly well known (although with today’s young people it is perhaps wrong to make assumptions) that the wearing of the poppy is a memorial to the sacrifices made by those who fought and died, initially in WW1 for the Allied cause, today more generally extended as a memorial to all those who perished in wars. Poppies grew prolifically in the killing fields of Flanders in Belgium, and still cover the countryside today. The poppies were made famous by the poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Canadian military doctor John McCrae in 1915 after seeing poppies on the battlefield after the loss of his friend in the second battle of Ypres.

It was an American teacher, Moina Michael, who campaigned to make the poppy the international symbol for remembrance of Allied war veterans, and to use their sale for veteran’s welfare. (Another prominent campaigner was Anna Guérin, who took inspiration from Ms. Michael and actively promoted adoption of the poppy). Between 1920 and 1922 the poppy was adopted by veterans’ organizations in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In Britain an organization known as the “Poppy Factory”, which still exists today, was set up to manufacture the paper poppies for sale for the support of veterans causes. That leads us to the main point of this blog, the intellectual property (IP) controversies that have arisen around the sale of poppies and poppy-related memorabilia.

There is an important intellectual property angle as to who gets to produce and sell poppies, although it is more of a trademark than a copyright issue. There have been controversies in both Britain and Canada involving production and sale of the little red flower. In both countries (and possibly elsewhere) the poppy is trademarked, by the Royal Canadian Legion (RCL) and the Royal British Legion (RBL), respectively, both respected veterans organizations. The Royal Canadian Legion’s website notes that the trademark was conferred by Act of Parliament in 1948, and is limited to the use of the poppy in remembrance;

“The Canadian trademark for the Poppy includes both the Legion’s Poppy logo, as well as the Poppy symbol, as it relates to Remembrance. The trademark does not apply to the use of the actual Poppy flower, unless that usage is misrepresented as the Legion’s Poppy by associating it with remembrance or the raising of monies for a purpose other than the Poppy Campaign.”

However, the trademark extends to any colour or configuration of the poppy when used as a symbol of remembrance. This is increasingly relevant as various groups make their own versions available, from a white poppy symbolizing peace (some would say pacifism) to a rainbow-hued LBGTQ poppy that has caused some controversy.

Whether either of the Legions would take legal action against someone for producing and selling poppies of a colour other than red is an interesting question, but last year in Britain a seller at an outdoor market pleaded guilty to selling red poppies that had no association with the RBL. In Canada a group of knitters who were knitting poppies for the price of a donation, which they say they intended to give to the RCL, were reminded that they were violating the Legion’s IP. In addition to its statement of trademark, the RCL has a very clear copyright warning on its website;

“The material on this site is covered by the provisions of the Copyright Act, by Canadian laws, policies, regulations and international agreements. Reproduction of materials on this site, in whole or in part, for the purposes of commercial redistribution is prohibited except with written permission from The Royal Canadian Legion…”

And what are the materials marketed on the site? Just about anything that you can stick a poppy symbol on—playing cards, bags, baseball caps, pins, brooches, watches, T-shirts, magnets, umbrellas, scarves, toques, mittens, stuffed animals, even cellphone cases. You get the idea. And then there are digital versions of the poppy that you can purchase and use to embellish your Facebook page. All the proceeds go to the Legion and then on to its veterans’ welfare programs (although the Legion is not a registered charity).

Well, who knew that the innocuous looking poppy on people’s lapels on Remembrance Day carried such weighty IP concerns on its shoulders? When you drop your donation into the collection box, and pin your poppy on your jacket or shirt, remember…even the humble poppy can be controversial when it comes to trademark and copyright issues.

Author: hughstephensblog

I am a former Canadian foreign service officer and a retired executive with Time Warner. In both capacities I worked for many years in Asia. I have been writing this copyright blog since 2016, and recently published a book "In Defence of Copyright" to raise awareness of the importance of good copyright protection in Canada and globally. It is written from and for the layman's perspective (not a legal text or scholarly work), illustrated with some of the unusual copyright stories drawn from the blog. Available on Amazon and local book stores.

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