— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney
Simon Tam wasn’t the only one barred by the Lanham Act from reclaiming a historically derogatory term.
Dykes on Bikes is a nonprofit lesbian motorcycle organization. According to their website, the group’s mission is to “support philanthropic endeavors in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and women’s communities, and to reach out to empower a community of diverse women through rides, charity events, Pride events, and education.” In 2015, Dykes on Bikes tried to register their logo as a service mark for entertainment. The application was put on hold pending the outcome of Matal v. Tam, as the Supreme Court considered whether Simon Tam could register his band name—The Slants. In view of the Court’s landmark decision holding the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, Dykes on Bikes will move forward with its trademark application as well.
It was in 2003 when Dykes on Bikes first sought to register the name of their organization as a service mark for education and entertainment services. Registration was refused on the basis that the mark was disparaging to lesbians. The organization appealed to the TTAB, arguing that the word “dyke” had become a positive term and a symbol of pride and empowerment. Dykes on Bikes won their appeal before the TTAB. But when the mark was published for opposition, an individual named Michael McDermott filed an opposition claiming the mark was disparaging to men. Ultimately, McDermott’s opposition was dismissed for lack of standing. In particular, McDermott failed to show either (1) he possesses a trait or characteristic implicated by the proposed mark; or (2) others share the same belief of harm from the proposed mark. The TTAB dismissed McDermott’s opposition and the Federal Circuit affirmed. DIKES ON BIKES was successfully registered in 2007.
Because they had already won the disparagement battle for their first mark, Dykes on Bikes was surprised to face another disparagement refusal for a second mark. In 2015, the group sought to register their logo as a service mark. They sought review by the TTAB, and the case was put on hold pending the outcome of Matal v. Tam. Dykes on Bikes also filed an amicus brief in the Tam case, arguing in favor of Tam’s position. After the Supreme Court held in Tam that “the disparagement clause violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment,” the DYKES ON BIKES W M C logo was approved for publication.
Dykes on Bikes and The Slants had similar goals. As Dykes on Bikes described in their amicus brief, both groups “have chosen to reclaim self-referential terms as trademarks for the benefit of the groups those terms refer to.” They also drew a distinction with respect to a certain NFL team name: “the Washington Redskins have chosen a term that is unrelated to the people who identify as members of the football team and is commonly understood to be a slur which members of the identified group have not reclaimed. Whatever the constitutionality of the PTO’s treatment of the Redskins mark, the team’s use of that name is immoral and Dykes on Bikes encourages the Washington Redskins to give up their trademarked name as a matter of respect and decency.”
While the Tam decision may have opened the proverbial flood gates of offensive trademark applications, it also allows for these positive trademark uses in reclaiming derogatory terms.