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Federal Trademark Registration, the First Amendment, and Freedom of Speech: Part II

Posted in Articles, Copyrights, Dilution, Famous Marks, First Amendment, Trademarks, USPTO

As the drum roll proceeds to the upcoming Midwest IP Institute in Minneapolis and sharing the podium with Joel MacMull of the Archer firm (and Simon Tam fame) on Thursday September 28, in a few days, I’ll be making a stop south of the border, at the University of Iowa College of Law, where it all started for me in the law, to share some thoughts on this topic with the Iowa Intellectual Property Law Society on Friday September 15, here are the details to attend.

In the meantime, here is my second installment on the important topic of Federal Trademark Registration, the First Amendment, and Freedom of Speech: Part II.

I’ll call it part of a continued, controlled Tam catharsis, with more food for thought and discussion of where the law is heading, especially with forthcoming Part III, exploring the implications of the Supreme Court’s Tam decision, especially the future of federal trademark dilution law.

As you may recall, Part I questioned the Supreme Court’s characterization of Section 2(a) as banning speech and the Court’s conflation of the federal government’s issuance of a trademark registration (and corresponding meaning of the resulting Certificate of Registration, issued in the name of “The United States of America,” and corresponding meaning of the federal registration symbol — ® — which cannot be used lawfully unless granted federal registration unlike © and ™) with the meaning of the underlying trademark subject matter sought to be registered.

As it turns out, the learned Professor Christine Haight Farley of American University Washington College of Law similarly recognized: “A broader critique is that the [Tam] court seems often to be speaking of trademarks when the issue before it is limited to the registration of trademarks.”

With Part II, while admittedly not having all the answers, I thought it might be productive to ask some probing questions about the Court’s decision to provoke further discussion and guidance:

  • Why didn’t the Tam Court acknowledge that the normal and historical operation of trademark law actually facilitates the complete suppression of certain speech, perhaps justifying special treatment and a unique approach from its typical First Amendment and Free Speech cases?
  • Why didn’t the Tam Court acknowledge the material difference in kind struck by Congress between denying registration on the one hand and enjoining and/or punishing trademark use on the other hand, as only the latter truly qualifies as a ban on speech?
  • Why didn’t the Tam Court acknowledge that our entire federal trademark law flows from the U.S. Constitution too? In particular, the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3), granting Congress the power: “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”
  • Why did the Tam Court not acknowledge that a Certificate of Registration is issued by the USPTO, under authority of the Department of Commerce, “in the name of the United States of America,” under Section 7 of the Lanham Act, and instead proceed to mock the governmental speech argument without addressing or attempting to explain away this difficult fact?
  • Did the Tam Court gloss over the language in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., noting “government statements (and government actions and programs that take the form of speech) do not normally trigger the First Amendment rules designed to protect the marketplace of ideas”?
  • Why did the Tam Court not feel compelled to explain how and why the government actions of approving or disapproving marks for registration somehow does not take the form of speech?
  • Was it disingenuous for the Tam Court to say “trademarks are private, not government speech,” when it was apparently unwilling to specifically and directly say that the government’s act of registering a trademark, issuing a Certificate of Registration (in “the name of the United State of America”), and placing a trademark on the Principal Register, is not government speech?
  • Isn’t the proper comparison in Walker and Tam, the state government’s direct control over specialty license plates and the federal government’s direct control over Certificates of Registration and the Principal Register, so isn’t it a red herring to emphasize that the federal government doesn’t “dream up” the applied-for marks, since Texas didn’t “dream up” the multitude of specialty license plate designs either?
  • Doesn’t the federal government, through the USPTO, edit, modify, and amend applied-for marks (through required disclaimers, description of goods/services changes, description of the mark changes, and drawing changes, etc.), at times, to place them in proper condition for approval, making the Tam Court’s attempt at distinguishing Walker v. Texas less compelling?
  • Why was the Tam Court more willing to limit Walker v. Texas to its facts than upholding the disparagement bar in Tam as facially constitutional, and then limiting Tam to its facts, in the unlikely event the hypothetical concern of Congress attempting to amend the Copyright Act to refuse similar matter ever would arise in the future?
  • In other words, why was the Tam Court so willing to embrace the hypothetical concerns of the false Copyright comparison with a multitude of ways to fairly distinguish from trademark?
  • As to the concern of chilling speech by denying federal registration, isn’t it telling that during the entire more than 100 year history of federal registration in the U.S., only some 5 million federal registrations have issued, which most certainly is a drop in the bucket to the number of eligible unregistered marks in use throughout the same period of time?
  • The Tam Court relied, in part, upon a perceived “haphazard record of enforcement” of the disparagement bar, how difficult would it be to develop evidence showing a similar “haphazard record” in applying other statutory bars found in federal trademark law?
  • How can the Tam Court actually resist saying that trademarks are a form of commercial speech, when it previously held in Friedman v. Rogers that the use of trade names “is a form of commercial speech”?
  • Why didn’t the Tam Court ever once mention “public policy” or the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine in its decision?
  • Did the Tam Court focus its sights on “viewpoint” as a way to avoid implicating too many other content based restrictions in the Lanham Act as becoming vulnerable to First Amendment challenges?

Stay tuned for Part III, as the Tam Court’s focus on “viewpoint” is the likely key to unlocking what additional portions of federal trademark law are vulnerable to future First Amendment challenges.