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

Posted in Articles, Branding, Dilution, Fair Use, Famous Marks, First Amendment, Marketing, Trademarks, TTAB, USPTO

Of course, loyal readers have been eagerly awaiting Part III of the series (see Part I and Part II) focusing on Tam’s intersection of federal trademark registration and the First Amendment.

In terms of the certain and practical implications flowing from the decision, it opens the door to a host of new trademark applications containing religious and racial slurs, including the N-word.

Perhaps this explains, in part, why the Justice Department flipflopped on the issue and now says that the “scandalous and immoral” provision of Section 2(a) actually can survive Matal v. Tam.

If the Federal Circuit allows the “scandalous and immoral” provision to survive Tam and attempts to craft some sort of reasoning as to why it should be treated differently than disparagement, we’ve already pointed to how that may impact pending and suspended refusals of the R-Word.

On the other hand, if the Federal Circuit eliminates “scandalous and immoral” registration refusals relying on the Supreme Court’s Tam decision, as consistency of analysis would seem to require, how many of the newly filed scandalous marks actually will be published in the Official Gazette?

Another interesting question might be whether any of these obviously offensive applications will satisfy the essential predicates to registration, and actually adorn the Principal Register, with official Certificates of Registration issued in the name of the United States of America?

It’s worth asking whether the Supreme Court’s destruction of the even-handed framework that the USPTO devised in applying the disparagement provision of Section 2(a) (conscious of favoring neither side on an issue and determined to ignore an Applicant’s intent), inevitably will lead to selectively enforced analyses above the table driven by emotions residing beneath the table.

One area for concern might be the Trademark Office’s growing interest in refusing registration of matter deemed merely informational; presumed “incapable” of performing a trademark function. I’m left wondering, how tempting might it be to use this rather blunt tool on seriously offensive subject matter after Section 2(a) has been stripped of its previous reach in denying registration?

Having said that, will or should the Trademark Office reassess Exam Guide 2-17, concerning Merely Informational Matter, in light of the Tam Court’s perspective on viewpoint discrimination. Seems like it should to me. So, I’m also left wondering, exactly how might “merely informational matter” not express a viewpoint, making such a refusal presumptively invalid?

Since the federal government is apparently powerless to prevent the registration of disparaging trademarks because doing so constitutes viewpoint discrimination that cannot withstand strict scrutiny, what is the fate of federal dilution law, especially the provisions against tarnishment of famous marks? Wes noted some serious questions, others have too, here, here, and here.

In particular, Justice Alito labeled the disparagement registration ban as a “happy-talk clause,” adding that “[g]iving offense is a viewpoint,” and Justice Kennedy reinforced that viewpoint, saying: “To prohibit all sides from criticizing their opponents makes a law more viewpoint based, not less so.” Given that clarity, does this defecating dog trademark not express a viewpoint too?

The Applicant defended Greyhound’s opposition, in part, by arguing that “reasonable people would not be offended because the mark mocks the craze for shirts bearing prestigious emblems.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like a viewpoint being expressed with the defecating dog trademark?

Yet, in rejecting the Applicant’s arguments, and in granting Greyhound summary judgment and refusing registration of the defecating dog mark, the TTAB concluded, back in 1988:

“We do not find applicant’s arguments to be persuasive. Even assuming that people are not offended by the sight of a dog defecating on the ground, applicant’s mark, used on its goods, is a dog defecating on a shirt. This certainly produces a different effect from the viewing of a dog defecating in its normal environment.”

“Further, applicant admits that some people would find the depiction of feces in the mark offensive and that people ‘expect to find something a little out of the ordinary when they see this type of applique.’ In effect, applicant is admitting that the mark has a shock value, and we view the shock to be the offensiveness of the depiction.” (citation omitted)

Does this not constitute “giving offense” and isn’t it fair to say, it “expresses ideas that offend” — to use Justice Alito’s words? Do shocking images and content not convey a viewpoint?

Justice Kennedy stated the disparagement provision “reflects the Government’s disapproval of a subset of messages it finds offensive. This is the essence of viewpoint discrimination.”

He went on to say:

“Unlike content based discrimination, discrimination based on viewpoint, including a regulation that targets speech for its offensiveness, remains of serious concern in the commercial context.”

If so, and if the “scandalous and immoral” provision of Section 2(a) does not survive Constitutional scrutiny in Brunetti, then how does Greyhound, or any other owner of a famous brand, prevent registration (and use) of trademarks designed to express a negative viewpoint about a famous brand while also serving as a trademark for Applicant’s own goods and/or services?

And, what about the below RED SOX/SEX ROD example? The TTAB ruled that the stylized SEX ROD mark “would be viewed as a sexually vulgar version of the club’s symbol and as making an offensive comment on or about the club.” That sounds like viewpoint discrimination too. So, on what basis can the Boston Red Sox object with the disparagement provision gone, and if dilution by tarnishment is also considered unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination?

Can dilution tarnishment survive the Tam Court’s strict scrutiny against viewpoint discrimination?