Remembrance Day Poppies and Intellectual Property Controversies

CBC TV Journalists–Credit: Author

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. And for that reason, I am posting this blog on November 11.

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. (When I was in Sydney last November 11, I spotted just one red poppy, an admittedly unscientific although first-hand survey). It is probably fairly well known (although with today’s young people it is probably 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. 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. 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 into the main point of this blog, the intellectual property (IP) controversies that have arisen around the sale of the poppies.

What I love about writing this copyright blog is that one can always find a new twist. I confess that I am fascinated by the nooks and crannies of copyright, such as the blog posting I wrote on “Copyright and Your Carbon Footprint”, or the blog on whether copyright is gender neutral (I argued that it was. That was like poking a hornet’s nest!), or a rather bare-bones effort on copyright and death, or last week’s posting on copyright infringement as a form of hybrid warfare. So, since Remembrance Day is upon us, I feel compelled to explore whether there is a copyright angle to the wearing of poppies. And surprise, there is.

It’s a bit tenuous, mind you, although there is definitely an intellectual property angle as to who gets to produce and sell poppies. However, it is more of a trademark than a copyright issue but, hey, why quibble? It’s all IP. 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 outdoors 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). Nevertheless, the Legion IP monopoly on the poppy symbol (when used in connection with remembrance) has not been without its critics. Sean Brelyea, a former air-force officer and frequent commentator on veteran’s affairs, has argued that the Legion should no longer have exclusive control of the poppy symbol since it is not the only veterans organization in the country and, indeed, as the numbers of their veteran members has dwindled over the years owing to “natural attrition”, many of the Legion’s members have no association with veterans at all. Brelyea suggests that the Legion should licence use of the poppy symbol to other veterans organizations, with a concomitant sharing of the proceeds. I am sure that the RCL would argue that it alone is best placed to protect the meaning of the symbol and to ensure that poppies are effectively distributed in order to bring maximum returns. Last year over $16 million was raised.

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.

© Hugh Stephens 2019. All Rights Reserved






Content Piracy as Hybrid Warfare


War, unfortunately, is as old as history. Usually violent, involving the use of force to compel or resist, in recent years the nature of warfare has begun to change. While physical force is still part of the military’s repertoire, today we are moving into an era of so-called “hybrid warfare” or “grey zone” strategies. There are various dimensions of this new phenomenon, including social media disinformation campaigns (particularly to manipulate election results or to create internal dissension), cyber-attacks, use of remote vehicles and drones, use of supposedly “private armies” to seize territories, economic measures such as sanctions but going beyond sanctions to include disruption of supply chains, and other measures that fall short of outright use of force, or are “plausibly deniable”.  There is a good discussion of the topic here. Continue reading “Content Piracy as Hybrid Warfare”

Canada’s Election and the Election Copyright Controversies…Were There Any Actual “Winners”?


Here I am a few days after the Canadian election, sifting through the results, trying to figure out who really won—politically and in terms of the copyright controversies that came out of the campaign. Among the six political parties that contested the election it is pretty hard to find a clear winner except perhaps for the nationalist/separatist party in Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois, which increased its seat count substantially. The Liberals lost 30 seats and a million votes although managing to cling to power, the Conservatives proved to be uninspiring to most of the country and came nowhere close to winning a majority, the New Democrats lost 20 seats and fell from third to fourth party (while seeming to revel in some sort of self-declared victory), the Greens underwhelmed, going from all of two seats to three, and the nascent People’s Party failed to elect even its leader. It was a bitter, divisive campaign with lots of personal attacks, dirty-tricks and mud-slinging. No real winners here. Continue reading “Canada’s Election and the Election Copyright Controversies…Were There Any Actual “Winners”?”

Monarch of All I Survey…Copyright Excepted (What are the Purposes and Limits of Government Copyright?)


I am monarch of all I survey” is a quote attributed to the English poet William Cowper (1731-1800), and has become a well-known phrase. “All I Survey” was used, for example, by the novelist G.K. Chesterton, for the title of his book of essays in the 1930s. For the purposes of this blog posting, it is going to refer to the charts that land surveyors create when hired by property owners or developers to measure and record land dimensions for purposes of land title. You know, those guys with the rods and little telescopes, furiously writing down compass points and angles. It takes a lot of skill and creativity to produce those charts. After all the on-the-ground measurement is done, the results have to be turned into the charts—at one time paper and now mostly digital—that are relied on for many legal and other purposes. They are almost like works of art. Almost is the operative phrase. An artist can copyright a work of art, but in Canada—according to a recent Supreme Court ruling–a surveyor cannot hold the copyright to a plan or chart that they have produced if that plan has been deposited with the Land Registry Office—as is often required in order to comply with legal requirements attached to the purposes of the survey. Continue reading “Monarch of All I Survey…Copyright Excepted (What are the Purposes and Limits of Government Copyright?)”

Can Copyright Law Protect Indigenous Culture? If Not, What is the Answer?


This is one of the questions that arose during the recent review of Canada’s Copyright Act by two Parliamentary Committees, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage and the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU Committee). Among the issues that Parliamentarians looked at was the issue of indigenous culture and its relationship to copyright law. The fundamental dichotomy between western notions of copyright and indigenous culture relates to a couple of issues; the fact that western copyright is a right asserted by individual creators (for the most part)—joint authorship and collective works are clearly an exception to this rule—and the fact that protection is limited to a set period of time, usually the life of the author plus a period extending from 50 years or more beyond the author’s demise. That may seem like a long period of time, but it is not very long when it comes to protection against misuse or misappropriation of traditional cultural artifacts and expressions. Continue reading “Can Copyright Law Protect Indigenous Culture? If Not, What is the Answer?”

MPA’s Logo Goes Global—Reflecting the Association’s Global Reach

In an announcement on September 18, the Motion Picture Association-MPA (formerly the Motion Picture Association of America-MPAA) announced that it was rebranding all its regional offices, which in the past have had different names and different logos, with the new identifier MPA-(Region) and the “globe and reel” logo familiar to US audiences. Thus, for example, the MPAA becomes MPA-America. This completes a process that began a few years ago to bring the various MPA offices under one common branding umbrella. As an example, in Canada for many years the association that represents the MPA members (the now five major Hollywood studios with the recent addition of Netflix) was called the CMPDA (Canadian Motion Pictures Distributors Association), which often led to confusion with the CMPA (Canadian Media Producers Association), an association of producers of Canadian media. A few years ago the CMPDA became MPA-Canada, a much clearer statement of who it was, with its own bilingual (English-French) logo featuring, naturally enough, a maple leaf. Now it will have a unified logo in common with other MPA affiliate organizations. Continue reading “MPA’s Logo Goes Global—Reflecting the Association’s Global Reach”

Copyright Governance Danish Style: Is This “Hygge” in Action?

Used with permission

My wife and I recently visited Denmark, a country we had only briefly stopped in years ago in order to take our (then) very young daughter to the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. But of course there is so much more to Denmark than Tivoli, or Lego, or Danish pastries, or all of the other clichés that we become used to. While no country is without some problems, Denmark comes across to a visitor as a laid-back, clean, tolerant and efficient country. It consistently ranks as No. 1 or 2 on Transparency International’s anti-corruption index (New Zealand being its main competitor) and honesty is valued. Danes pay some of the highest rate of tax in the world, but seem to feel that they get their money’s worth. In fact, one of the main attributes of “Danishness” is its reputation for happiness. In surveys Denmark is repeatedly found to be one of the world’s happiest countries and the Danes among the world’s happiest people. Various theories have been advanced for this outcome, including relative income equality, a well- structured social safety net (thus a reduction in anxiety levels), a high degree of mutual trust and an innate sense of well-being incorporated in the Danish term “hygge” (pronounced hyügeh, as I learned after initially mangling the word to the incomprehension of my Danish friends). Continue reading “Copyright Governance Danish Style: Is This “Hygge” in Action?”