The federal government's annual duck stamp, well known to waterfowl hunters and to well-heeled collectors of wildlife art, is about to go franchise.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced recently that it would start licensing private companies that want to reproduce the national stamp on posters, medallions, buckles and such. As part of the deal, the government will get 10 percent of the product's retail price to add to its Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which is used to buy wetlands for wildlife refuges.
This latest wrinkle in user fees, authorized by Congress last year, is part of Interior's campaign to cash in on the duck stamp, which is required for hunters of waterfowl. Established in 1934 to raise money for the purchase of waterfowl habitat, the stamps have since become a popular collectors' item.
Last month, for example, the department solicited bids on 15 sheets of its 50th-anniversary stamp, which would have sold for $900 a sheet during last year's hunting season. They're worthless for hunting ducks now, but the department set a minimum bid of $2,000 a sheet.
Director Robert Jantzen touted the licensing program, saying, "In return for the right to collect a royalty from anyone who reproduces the duck stamp for profit, we offer a way for manufacturers and retailers to feature the stamp's appealing and distinctive image."
In fact, however, manufacturers already have been featuring the duck stamp on their objets without so much as a by-your-leave from the feds. The new procedure won't change that; it will simply cut the government in on the profits.
"This is just a way of controlling how it's used," said Bill Webster, owner of Wild Wings, a wildlife art store in Lake City, Minn. "In the past, those who wanted to use it have just done that. Now when you want to use it, you have to pay."
The Fish and Wildlife Service is counting on the plan to augment the take from the duck stamps, which sell for $7.50 apiece and bring in about $15 million a year. "Anything with a trademark or a logo sells well," said spokesman David Klinger. "We're hoping to score big on this."
So far, the service has granted licenses to the Jim Beam distillery, which is using the stamp on bourbon decanters, an advertising firm and manufacturers of posters, belt buckles and decorated knife handles.
Webster said he questioned whether the royalty plan would be as lucrative as Interior hoped. "I don't think it will encourage us to do more," he said.
No matter. Interior is already thinking of other ways to wring profit from the stamp, which each year features the painting that takes top honors in an increasingly prestigious competition among wildlife artists.
In recent years, the real prize for the victorious artists has come from the sale of limited-edition prints of their work. In some cases, the sales have exceeded $1 million.
"There's some thought being given to recouping some of that for the government," said Klinger. Among the ideas: demanding a percentage of sales or paying the artist a set amount and retaining all future rights to the artwork.
Webster, who noted that the government already gets a sizable chunk of the artist's profits through the Internal Revenue Service, doesn't consider that quite fair. But he is more concerned that Interior's next revenue-enhancing foray will be aimed at the art dealers who distribute the prints.
"You have to look at who's the next guy down the line," he said. "Well, we are, unfortunately."