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‘Established Titles’ Controversy

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If you purchase a small plot of land in Scotland, it confers the formal title of "Lord" or "Lady."

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On November 23 2022, YouTube creator Scott Shafer uploaded a video partly titled “Established Titles Scam -YouTube’s BIGGEST Con,” about a common sponsor of YouTube shows (the company Established Titles) and whether their business model was misleading.

Background

Shafer’s video was just under 15 minutes long; a brief synopsis in the description field addressed high-profile channels promoting the company:

Established Titles is a scam based out of China that has convinced some of the largest YouTubers on the platform to promote them. Everyone from Graham Stephan, Andrei Jikh, The Quartering, and SomeOrdinaryGamers have all been paid to promote this scam to people, it needs to stop!

In a November 26 2022 tweet, Shafer said that the “Established Titles” video was hugely popular:

Google Trends data for the seven-day period ending November 28 2022 backed the claim about the clip’s viral spread. Among terms with “Breakout” levels of popularity were “Established Titles controversy,” “Scott Shafer Established Titles,” “YouTube sponsorship,” “is Established Titles legitimate,” “own land in Scotland,” and several variations of “Established Titles scam.”

Shafer also retweeted a November 16 2022 tweet by @MedCrisis, echoing his claims:

In the thread above, @MedCrisis included screenshots of emails purportedly proposing a sponsorship deal from Established Titles, adding:

“A friend once bought me a plot of land on the Moon as a birthday present. Seems about as legally binding as this…and I’m as able to build on my Moon plot (I’ve lost the deeds anyway) as you are on your Scottish land, as it stipulates that you can’t do anything with the land …

“… Thanks for your answers, some interesting stuff. The company is Chinese, with no apparent affiliation to anything Scottish at all. I’m informed that if you attempt to visit the website from a Scottish IP address, it doesn’t even show up properly …

“… Having done a bit more research, I think one can safely conclude that this is a scam. It’s very possible that your favourite youtuber who has advertised them was not aware, so let them know. It’s also possible they knew, and were happy to take a big ol’ haggis stuffed with cash.”

@MedCrisis also tweeted a screenshot of a purported list, with timestamps, of Established Titles sponsorship segments. We were unable to find the list itself:

YouTube creators monetize their videos in several ways, among them YouTube sponsorships.

Wikitubia, a Wikipedia-style encyclopedia about YouTube, explains how a YouTube sponsorship differed from standard advertisements:

Sponsorships are a form of advertising in which corporations make deals with YouTubers to advertise their product in the video. This is done as a way for YouTubers to earn more revenue off their content especially if they are demonetized or aren’t making enough off of regular YouTube ad revenue. Typically these sponsors are done at the beginning or ending of a video and sometimes during the middle of a video as well. Most sponsored videos may includes paid promotion, while some don’t include paid promotion. YouTubers show off and/or talk about the product or service and give promo codes as a way to entice viewers to check out that said product. Products that sponsors advertise do vary but usually include things such as VPNs (like ExpressVPN and NordVPN) and other online related goods and services. As with regular ads, YouTube sponsorships have been criticized by some due to how common they are as well as the fact that many use the same sponsors due to the YouTube sponsorship market not being as centralized and diverse.

Sponsored segments of a YouTube are — unlike ads — integrated into the video itself. Viewers of the channel are exposed to the product or service being advertised by the YouTube creator, creating the impression of an endorsement by that creator.

Wikitubia maintained a “List of Well Known Sponsors” on the same entry, with Established Titles listed.

What is Established Titles?

As Shafer explained, Established Titles was a familiar brand to frequent viewers of high-profile YouTube accounts.

Furthermore, the company’s use of YouTube sponsorships ensured that potential customers were introduced to the brand by a popular YouTube personality describing the company. As of November 28 2022, the landing page of EstablishedTitles.com read in part:

SAVE THE SCOTTISH WOODLANDS
Become a Lord Today!

Lordship & Ladyship Title Packs
Purchase a personal Lordship or Ladyship Title Pack with dedicated land in Scotland.*

Our Title Packs are based on a historic Scottish land ownership custom, where landowners have been long referred to as “Lairds”, the Scottish term for “Lord”, with the female equivalent being “Lady”.

*This is a purchase for a personal dedication for a souvenir plot of land. You may choose to title yourself with the title of Lord, Laird or Lady.

Every Lordship or Ladyship title pack contributes to the preservation and protection of woodland areas in Scotland. As the intention is for the land to be kept in its natural state, we ask that all interested parties do bear this in mind.

In that excerpt, Established Titles said that their “Title Packs” were “based on a historic Scottish land ownership custom, where landowners have been long referred to” as “Lairds” or “Lords” and “Ladies.” Notably, “Scotland” was followed by an asterisk; the asterisk referenced language about a “souvenir plot of land.”

Established Titles offered a range of “packages” on their website. An option to purchase one square foot of land (with no physical product attached) was $49.95,” but a “Couple Title Pack” with 20 square feet of land and a printed, framed “certificate” was priced at $483.95.

What Is a ‘Souvenir Plot of Land’?

According to Scotland law, a “souvenir plot” is defined as follows:

…a piece of land which, being of inconsiderable size or no practical utility, is unlikely to be wanted in isolation except for the sake of mere ownership or for sentimental reasons or commemorative purposes….

In April 2015, a Scottish law firm published a post about property laws and souvenir plots. The post (“The Scottish Souvenir Title ‘Scams’ – A Storm In A Teacup?”) began with a case study of sorts, involving a man who purchased a souvenir plot of land and wanted to “change [his] passport,” and the firm explained:

… He, along with all other owners of these souvenir plots, will be the registered owners of their plots and able to order all the stationery they want – surely?

Well, almost certainly not, as there is one little stumbling point to that last sentence coming to fruition – Scots land law itself. Section 4(2)(b) of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979 stated that an application for registration must be rejected by the Keeper where “it relates to land which is a souvenir plot, that is a piece of land which, being of inconsiderable size or no practical utility, is unlikely to be wanted in isolation except for the sake of mere ownership or for sentimental reasons or commemorative purposes”. One interpretation of this is that the 1979 Act effectively created a “de minimis” rule in respect of land registration – plots so small they could bestow no identifiable benefit for an applicant cannot be registered even if all the necessary deeds, plans, dispositions, etc. can be exhibited. The 1979 Act’s replacement – the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012 – also includes a similar prohibition on registration of souvenir plots under Section 22(2). The Land Register’s original logic for preventing registration of souvenir plots concerned efficiency – that the use of Land Register time, resources and staff to examine each and every small Highland plot application would minimise their ability to progress more traditional conveyancing applications.

In that analysis, the law firm contrasted a “‘real’ right of ownership” with a “‘personal’ right,” describing something akin to a sublet or sublease (but for “ownership” purposes):

Yet, despite this otherwise clear cut rejection of the business models used by companies such as Highland Titles Limited and Native Woods Preservation Limited by the Land Register, these purveyors of souvenir titles remain … Whilst a “real” right of ownership (where ownership is registered at the Land Register) could not be acquired by a customer of Highland Titles Limited (or similar companies), a “personal” right would nonetheless be obtained. The primary difference between a real and personal right of ownership being that the former is enforceable against the world at large, whereas the latter is only so against the seller. In, for example, the event of a mortgage over the land being called up, a souvenir plot purchaser would only be able to enforce that personal right against the “seller” and would not be able to prevent onward sale of their “plot” by that security holder.

Summarizing at the bottom, the firm touched upon the implied conference of a title (“Laird,” “Lord,” and “Lady”), and described souvenir plots of land as a “novelty gift”:

In the end, it may be helpful to step back from this debate and remove our legal caps and recognise what souvenir plots boil down to – novelty gifts. Whilst I have not focussed on the heraldic title issues at play with souvenir titles, it must surely be known by souvenir plot purchasers that they will not receive officially recognised titles of nobility or distinction. Even the ASA in their March 2014 investigation acknowledged that Highland Titles Limited did draw this to their customers’ attention to an extent (albeit not clearly enough). The likely motivation of a souvenir plot purchaser must be considered: do they really want (and expect) a real right of ownership; or do they just want a fancy Certificate or a memento from a recent Scottish holiday?

Can the Company Established Titles Confer Titles Like ‘Laird,’ ‘Lord,’ or ‘Lady’?

That analysis briefly referenced the matter of titles, essentially stating that the claim itself was sufficiently implausible to draw customers.

In April 2012, the Law Society of Scotland (a governing body of Scottish lawyers) addressed business models like Established Titles in an article with the headline, “Caution the souvenir hunters.” It briefly addressed an important difference between souvenir plots and a “real right of ownership”:

A real right of ownership in land (in the sense of a right that is enforceable against third parties) can only be obtained by registration in the Land Register or by recording a deed in the Register of Sasines as appropriate.

A subsection labeled “No title with your title” clarified those claims:

The Court of the Lord Lyon commented: “Ownership of a souvenir plot of land does not bring with it the right to any description such as ‘laird’, ‘lord’ or ‘lady’. ‘Laird’ is not a title but a description applied by those living on and around the estate, many of whom will derive their living from it, to the principal landowner of a long-named area of land. It will, therefore, be seen that it is not a description which is appropriate for the owner of a normal residential property.

“It cannot properly be used to describe a person who owns a small part of a larger piece of land. The term ‘laird’ is not one recognisable by attachment to a personal name and thus there is no official recognition of ‘XY, Laird of Z’.

“The words ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ apply to those on whom a peerage has been confirmed and do not relate to the ownership of land.

“Ownership of a souvenir plot of land is not sufficient to bring a person otherwise ineligible within the jurisdiction of the Lord Lyon for seeking a coat of arms.”

According to mygov.scot, the Court of the Lord Lyon is the Heraldic authority for Scotland, “dealing with all matters relating to Scottish Heraldry and Coats of Arms.” Established Titles did not seem to acknowledge the controversy on Facebook or Instagram, but it did respond to a comment on an Instagram post about whether minors were “eligible” for the service:

Our titlepacks are available for those of all ages! We often recieve [sic] inquiries about purchasing plots for newborns as well. This is a fun, novelty item for all who are interested.

In the menu at the bottom of the EstablishedTitles.com website, a page (with a URL ending in is-established-titles-a-scam) appeared. At the bottom of that page, a section labeled “Our response to “Established Titles a Scam – Youtube’s biggest Con” linked to a November 24 2022 letter addressing Shafer’s video.

You can read it here [PDF].

2022 Oscars and Scottish Souvenir Plots

In March 2022, souvenir plots of land in Scotland appeared in the news after a similar company (Highland Titles) made its way into “swag bags” from the year’s Academy Awards ceremony:

This year [in 2022], famous actors and directors attending the glitzy Hollywood awards ceremony have have been gifted the right to a small piece of the Highlands which allows them to claim the title ‘Lord or Lady of Glencoe’ as part of a coveted gift bag.

But ex-Scottish Greens politician Andy Wightman said that the gift is a sham and that the company behind it – Highland Titles – has no right to make the claim.

Wightman published an “open letter” to recipients, reiterating several of the points made in earlier analyses:

First and foremost, you are not the owner of any land in Scotland despite what this company might have led you to believe. See Section 22 of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012. (1)

You have also not been given any right to style yourself Lord or Lady of Glencoe. Highland Titles has no authority or power to bestow such a title on you.

You have a piece of paper (several probably) with impressive sounding claims and illustrations. They remain just pieces of paper, however and provide you with nothing more than that … The plot you purportedly own is not in Glencoe. It is 20 miles away in Duror.

Summary

A viral November 23 2022 YouTube video about Established Titles by creator Scott Shafer was virally popular, in large part due to the ubiquity of YouTube creators pitching the product to viewers. Some of the discourse was around whether the “novelty” aspect was clear to customers, but that quickly fell into the realm of subjectivity.

Established Titles offered packages ranging from $49.95 with no physical products, to nearly $500 for a framed “certificate.” (No explanation for what the “certificate” represented was provided on the product page.) Similar companies existed, prompting legal analysis as far back as 2012. Scottish land law specifically included a “prohibition on registration of souvenir plots.” Likewise, the Court of the Lord Lyon clarified that the “words ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ apply to those on whom a peerage has been confirmed and do not relate to the ownership of land.”

While Established Titles was not the only business purporting to sell land and titles in Scotland, it specifically came under scrutiny for its aggressive use of YouTube sponsorships — creating the appearance that high-profile creators endorsed and approved of their business model.