Protecting the FFA Emblem (2/12/2021)

In Part I of this Friday Footnote (titled The Eagle Enigma which was published last week) we learned the FFA delegates at the 1934 FFA Convention codified that the eagle was indeed part of the FFA emblem. The FFA constitution was revised in 1937 to reflect the change that the FFA emblem consisted of 5 major elements (including the eagle), not 4 as had been listed in previous versions of the constitution. Everyone thought the issue was settled, but it wasn’t.

The Problem

At the March 1938 meeting of the FFA Board of Trustees meeting (Minutes, p. 10-11) it was reported that:

The matter of infringement on the F.F.A. emblem was brought before the Board. The practice of F.F.A. Advisers and members asking numerous companies for various items of special design, etc. was to be definitely discouraged. Only companies with F.F.A. contracts should be patronized.

Mr. Ross [the FFA Executive Secretary] was authorized to continue to investigate the possibility of securing a trade-mark for the emblem without having to deface or change it in any way.

Something needed to be done to protect the FFA emblem. That “something” would be to secure a trademark for the FFA emblem. At the May 15-22, 1939 meeting of the FFA Board of Trustees it was:

Moved by Coates to empower the Executive Secretary to try again to secure trade mark and design patent on the F.F.A. emblem ‘as is’ but that if difficulty be encountered with the emblem in its present form, the design of the emblem should be so changed that legal protection can be secured. Motion seconded and carried.”

Accordingly, a trademark application on the FFA emblem was filed on May 26, 1939 with the United States Patent Office.

In October, immediately prior to the start of the 1939 FFA convention the Board of Trustees met. In a session titled “Unfinished Business” the Trustees made four recommendation about Protecting the FFA Emblem (Board of Trustees Minutes, p. 1):

  1. The Board of Trustees recommends to the delegates that Mr. Ross be instructed to secure a trademark and design patent on that portion of the emblem that he can.
  2. The Board of Trustees recommends to the delegates that companies known to be using the F.F.A. emblem be warned and requested to desist from soliciting business and handling F .F .A. goods when not authorized to do so.
  3. The Board of Trustees recommends to the delegates that the officers of every state association make it their business that chapters are informed of the companies selling official merchandise.
  4. The Board of Trustees recommends to the delegates that Mr. Ross send letters to the State advisers warning them of companies using the F.F.A. emblem without permission.

All recommendations passed.

So, what happened during the 1939 convention. The FFA emblem and specifically, the eagle was the subject of discussion. Mr. Ross reported that (1939 FFA Convention Proceedings, p. 12):

… an application made for trademark on the complete emblem had been refused on the grounds that the eagle, shield, and olive branch were too much like the emblem of the Nation and would therefore have to be removed if such trade mark were granted ; that there were no previous similar applications for trade mark on file in Washington; that legal advice had been sought, and that apparently the best procedure seemed to be to make a second application for trade mark on that part of the emblem which might be trademarked.

In the oral report made in 1939 to the delegates by Mr. Ross expressed great concern about misuse of the emblem (p. 69-70):

While this matter has been talked at every convention and a consistent attempt has been made to see that the emblem is properly used, there is at this time considerable abuse of the F. F. A. emblem. Such abuse ranges all the way from over-enthusiastic members and advisers removing parts therefrom, such as the owl or the plow or the letters “F. F. A.”, and substituting something else, on up to commercial concerns actually manufacturing and selling merchandise of various kinds with the F. F. A. emblem thereon without having the consent of the national organization.

Regardless of the progress made in protecting the emblem by trademark and the name by design patent, I am again repeating this fundamental principle — The most efficient protection for the emblem is in the individual member who wears it and the chapter and the State Association to which he belongs. No company is going to manufacture that which they cannot sell. If F. F. A. members buy only from official concerns this thing can be stopped without legal protection or legal action. If, however, members continue to have manufactured everything they desire at any time without consulting us nationally, there will be trouble and confusion confounded. The organization thus loses both control of their own emblem and the financial assistance in the form of royalties to which they are entitled.

As a result of the emblem discussion, a motion was made at the 1939 convention to officially secure a trademark on the emblem (Convention Proceedings, p. 14), “Moved by Read of Florida, seconded and carried, that a trademark be secured on that part of the F. F. A. emblem that can be trademarked.“

The 1940 FFA Convention

 At the 1940 FFA Convention Mr. Ross indicated that an “agreement” had been reached with the Patent Office regarding a trademark for the FFA emblem. In a lengthy report he stated (Proceedings, 1940, p. 48-49):

At the 1939 National Convention, it was called to the attention of the delegates that a trade mark on the complete F. F. A. emblem had been refused by the U. S. Patent Office. This decision was based on the fact that the eagle, shield, and olive branch resembled too closely those on the emblem of the Federal Government. It was also called to the attention of the delegates that no previous registrations were on file and that the best procedure seemed to be to make application on that part of the emblem that could be trade marked. Delegate action was taken to this effect.

Acting on this authority, your Executive Secretary secured the services of a Patent and Trade Mark lawyer in Washington, D. C. and we went to work on the matter. The revised application carried a drawing of the F. F. A. emblem, minus the eagle, shield and olive branch as well as the words “vocational agriculture.” On August 7, 1940, we were informed that this application with slight and unimportant modifications had been accepted. Now you may wonder just what protection this gives the organization where the emblem trade mark is not complete. We are informed that it is almost as good as if the trade mark had been secured on the total and complete emblem because unauthorized concerns making use of our emblem are infringers and subject to court action if they reproduce any part of our emblem.

The next move made was to file a trade-mark application on the letters “F. F. A.” as they stand. If this application is accepted we shall then have the name “Future Farmers of America” the emblem, and the letters “F. F. A.” protected from infringers.

Further work remains to be done however, on the various classes of goods on which the emblem is used. Our attorney has attempted to bunch these classes for us to keep expenses to a minimum but in order to adequately protect the emblem, it may be necessary to submit as many as six or seven separate applications to cover jewelry, felt goods, uniforms and so on. Such applications cost about $60.00 each. Due to the fact that the emblem is being used by the organization on so many classes of merchandise, it becomes necessary to make the separate applications indicated.

 The next thing we did was to send letters, through our attorney, to concerns we definitely knew were infringing—that is using the emblem without authority. Such letters constitute “cease and desist” orders. They went to the Herff-Jones Co. of Indianapolis, Loren Murchidson Co. of Newark, N. J., and the Benco Co. of Seattle, Washington. Replies received from two of these concerns indicate that there will be no further difficulty. Similar letters will go to other infringers as time goes on.

 It is the duty of every member of the F. F. A. to report, through his State adviser, to the national office the names and locations of any other commercial concerns not on the authorized list of official F. F. A. merchandizing companies. It is also the duty of every member to buy only from official concerns.

When a glib-tongued salesman from an unauthorized concern appears at your school with so called F. F. A. merchandise, ask him the name of his company whether it is official and then show him the official list of F. F. A. companies. Tell him our F. F. A. emblem is protected both by copyright and trade-mark and that his company is subject to court action for using the name, the emblem, or the letters F.F.A. without proper authority from the national organization of Future Farmers of America.

Our organization is going through what the American Legion and many other organizations have gone through—a struggle to protect the official emblem. Unless every member, every chapter, and every State association helps the emblem may appear on nearly any kind of a product, in nearly any kind of form and colors, and it will be cheapened and commercialized to such an extent that the organization will no longer be proud of it. Give this matter your attention. Let’s all work to protect our emblem.

Respectfully submitted,

A. ROSS, National Executive Secretary.

The FFA Emblem Trademark

The process for obtaining a trademark is to file an application with the U.S. Patent Office, it is then reviewed by the staff to see if there are obvious issues, then the proposed trademark is published in the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office to see if there is opposition to the trademark (any opposition must be filed within 30 days), then several months later a trademark is issued.

At the time the FFA emblem was trademarked, you had to identify how the trademark would be used. If there were several different uses of the trademark, each usage had to be trademarked (refer back to the fourth paragraph above in the report from Mr. Ross). Thus, we find several early trademarks regarding the FFA emblem.

The first record I can find of an official application for an FFA trademark was filed on May 26, 1939. It took about a year and a half before it was published in the Gazette (on October 29, 1940) to see if there was opposition (this is longer than normal). My belief is that during this 19 month period there was an ongoing discussion between the FFA and the Patent Office about the eagle on the emblem. Figure 1 shows what was published in the Gazette to see if there was opposition to trademarking the emblem. The FFA trademark application was for Class 38 which is Prints and Publications. It is obvious the eagle is missing.

Figure 1. FFA Trademark application that appeared in the October 29, 1940 issue
of the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office.  If there was opposition
to the trademark, the objection had to be filed within 30 days of this date.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce publication, Index of Trade-Marks Issued from the United States Patent Office, 1941, the FFA emblem was trademarked for Category 38 (Prints and Publications) on January 7, 1941 and received the serial number 419,865.

In the process of preparing this Footnote, I was made aware of a historical artifact that is located in the FFA Historical Room at Virginia Tech (See Figure 2). At the time the trademark was approved, the FFA was incorporated in Virginia. I am not sure why the date of 1940 is on this document. The application was made in 1939 and was approved in 1941. So why does this document contain the date 1940? The FFA was notified on August 7, 1940 that the trademark had been accepted but it took several more months, stretching into 1941 before receiving official approval.

Figure 2. The FFA emblem trademark for print and publication.
Both the emblem (minus the eagle) and the name were trademarked.
Troy White, Andrew Smith, and John Hillison all had a hand in providing me with this document.

The eagle was removed from the emblem in order to secure the trademark. Even though we may have preferred the entire emblem be trademarked, it is important that we consider this statement made by Mr. Ross:

We are informed that it is almost as good as if the trade mark had been secured on the total and complete emblem because unauthorized concerns making use of our emblem are infringers and subject to court action if they reproduce any part of our emblem.

It didn’t take long for other FFA emblem and letter trademark applications to follow. The letters FFA were trademarked in March of 1941. Table 1 contains a record of the first few trademarks.

Table 1. Early FFA Trademarks

Application Filed Published in the Gazette for Opposition Trademark Granted Class Serial # Emblem or Other Items Trademarked
26-May-39 29-Oct-40 7-Jan-41 38 419865 Manual
14-Oct-40 3-Dec-40 11-Mar-41 50 436926 The letters FFA
3-Jul-41 23-Dec-41 10-Mar-42 39 445049 Clothing
3-Jul-41 13-Jan-42 24-Mar-42 28 445050 Pins, Badges, etc.
3-Jul-41 13-Jan-42 24-Mar-42 50 445051 Banners, Plaques, etc.

The use of the FFA emblem on clothing was of much concern to the FFA, especially on jackets. In July of 1941 the FFA applied for a trademark on the use of the emblem on clothing. It was granted in March of 1942. See Figure 3.

Figure 3. Class 39 trademark application for the FFA emblem on clothing.
Published for Opposition on December 23, 1941. From the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, January 13, 1942.

Many other trademarks followed. The Justia Trademarks website shows over 40 trademarks, from the past to the present, for the Future Farmers of America. On the earlier trademarks from Table 1, the number 71 precedes the serial number.

Concluding Remarks

After obtaining a trademark covering most of the emblem, the FFA continued to put the eagle on top of the emblem. However, great pains were taken to make it different than the eagle on the seal of the United States. See Figure 4. The eagle in the great seal carries 13 arrows. The FFA eagle had 3 or 5 arrows depending upon whom manufactured the emblem.

So, this answers the question raised by Brandon Davis in last week’s Footnote – “We had a teacher in KY ask a question about the emblem I had not heard before. Why does the eagle not grasp 13 arrows like the Great Seal of the US?” Now you know. At one time, in 1938, the FFA Trustees had even discussed replacing parts of the eagle (the olive branch, shield, and arrows) with a sheaf of wheat to go on the FFA emblem.

Figure 4. The Great Seal of the United States.


And they lived happily ever after. Not really. That only happens in fairy tales.

After the FFA emblem trademark was obtained there were still problems with unauthorized use of the FFA emblem. And the fact the trademarked emblem was minus the eagle was of concern to agricultural educators. The solution that was discussed was to obtain a federal charter for the FFA. It was believed a federal charter (in effect a federal law) would protect all aspects of the FFA, including the eagle on the emblem.

After a decade of effort, Public Law 740 was passed in 1950 giving the FFA a federal charter. Section 4 (12) of PL 740 states the organization can “adopt emblems and badges”. So, it appears the whole FFA emblem is protected, BUT….

Section 16 of Public Law 740 states “The corporation, and its duly authorized chapters and associations of chapters, shall have the sole and exclusive right to use the name of Future Farmers of America and the initials FFA as representing an agricultural membership organization and such seals, emblems, and badges as the corporation may lawfully adopt.” Read this carefully. The national organization AND individual FFA chapters and state associations have control over the emblem.

Well, Katie bar the door (in case you don’t know, Katie bar the door is an exclamation that means watch out, trouble is on its way. It is an American phrase, usually heard in the southern United States. The exact origin is unknown).

In a future Friday Footnote we will describe the major lawsuit involving the national FFA as a result of the wording of Section 16 of Public Law 740. The lawsuit was brought by the National FFA against the Chapter Supply Service of Illinois because they were supplying FFA merchandise to the Texas FFA Association. Who do you think won? In this future Footnote we will also look at later actions to protect the FFA emblem. Stay tuned.

A special thanks go to Troy White for helping track down some of the early records regarding the trademarks and Jim Connors for some of the early convention proceedings.