Remember a while back when many were humming to the tune “What Does the Fox Say“?
Today, I’m asking, what does the trademark registration say? Not, what does the trademark say — that is a different and more complicated question, depending on the specific mark, but at a minimum, answering that question involves the meaning and attributes of the underlying brand.
The trademark registration — as opposed to the trademark itself — is a piece of paper issued by the federal government with its literal and figurative signatures and fingerprints all over it.
There is no question that a trademark communicates information about an underlying brand, but the Certificate of Registration communicates something quite different — the piece of heavy stock paper with the words in fancy script “United States of America” and “United States Patent and Trademark Office,” across the top, and the golden Official Seal of the USPTO (including a reference to the Department of Commerce) located in the lower left hand corner of the Certificate of Registration, also appearing above the signature of the Director of the USPTO (who is also Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property), an employee of the federal government and principal advisor to the President of the United States — what this valuable piece of paper communicates is an official act of the federal government that it has examined and approved the trademark for federal registration and exclusive protection in United States commerce.
By way of example, in all its glory, remember this little gem from the archives:
Although the USPTO certainly got it right with our registration, there are times when the USPTO makes a mistake and is asked later to correct it. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently corrected the USPTO errors from decades ago in improperly issuing federal registrations for a racial slur, in violation of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. So, as we know from the Washington football NFL franchise’s continued fight to keep the R-Word, the USPTO hasn’t always gotten it right from the outset, and since we’re talking about important matters of public policy here, Congress determined long ago that there is no statute of limitations on getting it right, petitions to cancel on these public policy grounds can be brought “at any time.”
So, when the issuance of a trademark registration would violate public policy, on disparagement, deceptiveness, or other public policy grounds, under current law, the federal government (i.e., The United States Patent and Trademark Office, part of the United States Department of Commerce) is required to refuse registration under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. Issuing a Certificate of Registration is the federal government saying, the trademark in question, doesn’t violate any of these statutory bars. And, when the statutory bars are violated, the federal government must refuse registration on Section 2(a) grounds, yet the trademark applicant is free to continue using the trademark in commerce, the right to use is not negated.
As you will recall, some are working hard to have the disparagement bar on federal registration of trademarks found unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, contending that revoking the government-issued trademark registrations chills their freedom of speech. Those arguments failed in the Eastern District of Virginia, so let’s all stay tuned for how the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit handles them, as it reviews the Eastern District of Virginia decision, and let’s all stay tuned for when the same arguments are made in another case involving another racial slur involving Asian Americans, before the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit later this year.
In the end, because the federal government’s act of registration and issuance of a Certificate of Registration, communicates the federal government’s approval of the trademark as being suitable and appropriate for federal registration and protection, the trademark registrations in question involve no speech by the trademark owner, the valuable pieces of paper are purely and 100% governmental speech, taking them outside First Amendment scrutiny. I’m thinking that efforts to conflate the communicative value of a trademark and underlying brand (admittedly the trademark owner’s speech) with the trademark registration itself (the government’s speech about the trademark) will prove unsuccessful.
What do you think?