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There is a free to browse online database of family mottos related to coat of arms and heraldry etc. As I understand it most of these are historical. To quote from the site (I have redacted the name in case it is not allowed)

This is a Free Motto resource center containing approx. 9,000 mottoes transcribed from Elvin’s Mottoes, with added mottoes from [Redacted] own Library and from noted heraldic writers. The Family Mottoes Resource may not be copied for any reason or any purpose without [Redacted] expressed written permission. ... RULES OF USE You may copy up to 10 mottoes for your personal website. A Link to the [Redacted] home page is required. If you don’t have a website, you may copy up to 10 Mottoes for your personal use.

While I don't doubt that they have put some work to digitise and publish these online I was slightly surprised that any form of "copyright" can apply here. Can a site really "own" historical family mottos to the degree that they can legally stop people using them?

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In US law, historic mottos are no longer protected by copyright, if they ever were. That would include any published prior to 1927 at the moment.

However, short phrases, such as mottos are not protected by US copyroight, even if contemporary. US Copyright Office Circular 33: "Works Not Protected by Copyright" lists, on page 2, as not protected: "Names, Titles, Short Phrases" and goes on to state:

Words and short phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans, are uncopyrightable because they contain an insufficient amount of authorship. The Office will not register individual words or brief combinations of words, even if the word or short phrase is novel, distinctive, or lends itself to a play on words.

Examples of names, titles, or short phrases that do not contain a sufficient amount of creativity to support a claim in copyright include:

...

  • Mottos, slogans, or other short expression

While the answer by Dale M is correct that the collection may be subject to protection as a collection, for this to apply one would need to copy all, or a substantial part, of the collection, surely far more than 10 items.. Moreover, if the method of selection is not original, or the organization is obvious (and the ordering seems to be alphabetical by family name, which is fairly obvious), there may be no copyright at all under the US Supreme Court decision Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991)

That a certain family has used a particular motto is a fact, and like other facts is in no way protected by copyright, whether the use or creation of the motto was hundreds of years ago or last week. A collection of facts can have protection provided that it has originality by virtue of the selection of facts made, or their arrangement.

Under the EU database law, somewhat greater protection is given to the contents of a database than would be under US or UK copyright law. But even under that law, the claims made by this site are probably unenforceable.

The site heraldryclipart.com make a number of copyright claims which I think are quite invalid. In particular, it claims individual copyright for "newly hand-drawn" images of historic coats of arms. All such images are in the public domain, and a faithful redrawing will not grant any new protection in US or UK law, or I think in EU law or the law of any country that follows the Berne Copyright Convention.

Still a collection copyright might well apply. Anyone planning to use a sizable part of this collection would be wise to consult an experienced IP lawyer.

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  • How is a newly hand-drawn image of a historic coat of arms not a derivative work and therefore deserving of copyright protection?
    – phoog
    Nov 22, 2022 at 9:25
  • @phoog I believe it would come within the "slavish reproduction" rule of the Corel case. The degree pof variation that an artist can make when following a valid heraldic blazon is quitemsmall, so I think it would be not a derivative work,(which gets its own copyright, subject to the rights of the owner of the source work, if any) but a mere copy, with no separate copyright. I must admit i do not know of case law specific to coats of arms Nov 22, 2022 at 16:23
  • "The degree of variation that an artist can make when following a valid heraldic blazon is quite small": there is infinite variation possible in the width of a stripe, even more in a representation of an animal or object. The choice of color is creative -- traditional heraldry doesn't go farther than "blue," "green," etc. Even a painting of a simple tricolor flag with well defined proportions and colors could qualify on the basis of its brushwork. The fact that the source is a heraldic blazon or a specific realization of one is by no means sufficient to establish "slavish reproduction."
    – phoog
    Nov 23, 2022 at 16:56
  • @phoog the heraldic artist is not as free as you may imagine. Standard ordinaries are supposed to have a width of1/3 of the field, for example, and sub-ordinaries 1/9th. Heraldic blue is a deep saturated blue, with no green or yellow. Heraldic art should be evan, as if enameled, with no visible brushwork. I have worked as a member of a local heraldic consulting group (not the leader) some years ago. In the4 absence of caselaw one cannot be sure, bu I don't think heraldic art generally has enough freedom to constitute derivitive works. Nov 23, 2022 at 18:03
  • "Heraldic blue is a deep saturated blue, with no green or yellow": compare the flags of Scotland and the UK. The source of the blue in the union flag is Scotland's St. Andrew's cross, yet the colors used today don't match at all. Regardless, this discussion is rather abstract. Try an image search for arms of [whatever] and in most cases you'll find versions that are clearly different enough to demonstrate that the realization of a heraldic blazon is fully capable of failing the "slavish reproduction" test.
    – phoog
    Nov 23, 2022 at 21:22
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Copyright exists in the collection, not the individual mottos

Historical mottos are probably too old to have copyright protection. However, the site’s choices of which mottos to publish, how and with what translations is covered by copyright in just the same way that an anthology of Shakespeare’s sonnets would be.

That said, after visiting the site, it seems that some at least of these mottos are contemporary works and therefore protected by copyright.

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  • -1 Even contemporary mottos generally have too little original authorship for individual copyright protection. See my answer. Nov 21, 2022 at 6:08

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