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Is it legal to use the eagle from the Great Seal of the United States (as shown on the dollar bill) as part of a commercial design in a book? I am also changing the "e pluribus unum" to a slogan.

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    Can I discourage you? That might constitute plagiarization of the artwork. Changing a word or two or three doesn't change it. I substituted the word "Honesty" for "Washington" on a likeness of G Washington on some artwork. The US FBI has my artwork and a photo of me and my fingerprints. The printer called the police, the police called the FBI and the FBI paid me a visit. : )
    – Stan
    Jun 14 '16 at 22:50
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a legal question. It may be on topic over at law.stackexchange.com Jun 14 '16 at 23:00
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    I think the question's fine, and topical--it's within reason that a designer would know as much about this specific situation as a law professional, for the same reasons RPG.SE allows legal questions. I think Stan's response is actually a good argument for keeping the question: he's had a bad experience, and if he can edit his answer to be clearer about it that'll make for a great answer.
    – BESW
    Jun 15 '16 at 8:54
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    Please be aware that we aren't lawyers, don't pretend to be, and that no advice given on this site should constitute valid legal advice. If you want to be absolutely sure, hire a lawyer.
    – Vincent
    Jun 15 '16 at 9:24
  • More detail: My offense was to design a "Shoe Buck" bonus certificate for a chain of shoe stores who gave one for every pair of shoes they sold that could be redeemed for merchandise. No stock art was used and I drew the whole thing freehand with a technical pen.
    – Stan
    Jun 15 '16 at 18:48
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From the U.S. Department of State (www.state.gov)

Use of the Great Seal of the United States is governed by Public Law 91-651, Title 18 of the United States Code. This is a criminal statute with penal provisions, prohibiting certain uses of the Great Seal that would convey or reasonably be calculated to convey a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the Government of the United States or any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof.

You can ultimately be fined and imprisoned for up to 6 months for use of the seal without written permission. You can read the details of the legislation here:

If your intended use can in any way be reasonably confused with an official endorsement or use by the Government of the United States then I would stay clear. Ultimately it is a decision you need to make but I would be careful either way and only use it if you can be certain it will not be confused as "Official".


Note: I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice. If you require legal advice, contact a legal professional.

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  • Note that a lay person and a practicing lawyer can read, interpret, and apply the same legal text differently. Legislation is not meant to communicate so much as stipulate. The two can be mutually exclusive.
    – Stan
    Jun 15 '16 at 20:14
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As per the copyright notes on the Wikimedia commons image of the Seal, it is Public Domain, but heavily restricted in use. Which is common for a seal, coat of arms, flag or insignia.

There are laws that allow use in parody, though I can't say how those interact with the stated limitations.

Finally, your answer heavily depends on what jurisdiction you are in yourself.


disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor an American citizen. This answer does not constitute legal advice, nor does it aspire to.

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  • The jurisdiction argument can be VERY misleading. The US has "Reciprocity" with 128 other countries who will and do enforce US laws on their behalf and vise-versa. Please see discussion on this question between @Cai and me. His later answer reflects some of the discussion between us.
    – Stan
    Jun 15 '16 at 18:42
  • I find this advice to be misleading given the nature of the subject and the extensive detail of the relevant notes regarding this specific graphic device. Note that the instructions include electronic uses but heavily qualify anything intended for print.
    – Stan
    Jun 15 '16 at 18:56
  • @Stan I'm sorry, I don't see how my answer is misleading. I try to caution as much as possible. I understand you have had a bad experience, and I do not want to diminish that. But please, try to be a bit more relaxed in your phrasings. Be nice.
    – Vincent
    Jun 15 '16 at 19:54
  • I understand your concern and your precautions. I don't mean to be rude. The reason for my strident tone is that any kind of "lawyer talk" can lull the OP into a false sense of "That doesn't apply to me." The whole legal system is full of baited traps set to go off. I didn't think I was a neophyte beginner. Sorry for any slight you may have felt. It was unintended. I was screaming over your head at the OP, not you specifically.
    – Stan
    Jun 15 '16 at 20:11
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    @Stan Comments aren't for discussion, but for helping to improve posts. Instead of editorializing others' answers, make your own answer as good as you can so it can stand on its own as a response to the asker's situation.
    – BESW
    Jun 15 '16 at 20:48
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18 U.S. Code Section 713(a) in summary says that displaying a reproduction or likeness of the Great Seal of the U.S. or the seals of the President, Vice-President, Senate, House of Representations or Congress is a federal crime if you convey a "false impression of sponsorship or approval" by the Government of the U.S. or any of its departments, agencies or instrumentalities. Violators will be fined and/or punished by no more than six months in prison.

Section 713(b) forbids reproducing, selling or purchasing for resale any likeness of the seals of the President or Vice-President, other than for government use. The criminal penalty is the same as noted above. Exceptions to this rule are provided in regulations submitted by the President. President Nixon promulgated such regulations in Executive Order #11649 dated 1972.

Sections 713(c)-(e) apply the language of (b) above to seals of the Senate, Representatives and Congress.

Section 713(f) states that violators may be enjoined in litigation filed by the Attorney General at the request of specified representatives of the aggrieved parties.

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You are permitted to utilize any government seal or symbol as long as a reasonable person would not be confused as to official sponsorship or endorsement.

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Probably NO

You mention that it is part of a commercial design in a book. That might be the deal breaker. It might not.

Be Informed.

You do not need a lawyer but do your homework.

You will have to visit or consult the US Department of the Treasury for their ruling (which can be appealed). The agents will tell you directly. Either way, yes or no, ask for the ruling in writing. Nothing verbal is binding or conclusive, however, regardless of the decision be it in your favour or against. They will also advise you if you are in a grey area. They try to be very helpful. If you are found in violation of counterfeit law, your artwork will be confiscated. You can appeal this too. If you go voluntarily, you will be "in compliance" in spirit and even if you are in violation, that you asked prior to use will be considered.

Get everything in writing. You can appeal anything.

There are different aspects to this question which involve different legal specialties. One is Intellectual Property and the other is US Federal Trade Law, probably more.

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  • My ? wasn't clear- It's an illustration for a book. From a public domain site, it seemed fun to use parts of an 1899 $2 bill...then, I worried about using the eagle. I checked & the only thing I found with a similar idea, was an eagle in color, from The Great Seal of the US holding a spatula & french fry basket; box of french fries on the plaque & a burger above in the clouds. Mine is cut from the $2 bill, w/ a toy on the plaque & text on ribbon from e pluribus unum to an educational quote. I also cut out a couple of fancy flourishes to use. I hope this clears up the question or my intent.
    – Savvy
    Jun 15 '16 at 9:19
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    @Savvy Please edit this information into your question!
    – BESW
    Jun 15 '16 at 9:22
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Vincent
    Jun 15 '16 at 9:31

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