Last Friday was a big day for Erik Brunetti. He won his appeal at the CAFC, opening the door to federal trademark registration of his four-letter-word “fuct” clothing and fashion brand name.

The same door swung wide open for all other vulgar, scandalous, and immoral designations used as trademarks, because the 112-year old registration prohibition was found to violate free speech.

You may recall where I take a knee on the free speech argument as it relates to the government’s issuance of federal trademark registrations, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I’m continuing to believe Congress has the power under the Commerce Clause to distance itself from and not be viewed as endorsing certain subject matter on public policy grounds, especially when Certificates of Registration are issued “in the name of the United States of America.”

Having said that, I’m thinking the federal government has done a less than stellar job of articulating and advocating for this right, which may very well explain the current state of affairs.

What is striking about the CAFC ruling is its breadth. It isn’t guided by the Supreme Court’s Tam decision — requiring viewpoint discrimination — as the Tam Court found with disparagement.

The CAFC did not decide whether the “scandalous and immoral” clause constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination, instead it seized on mere content as lower hanging fruit for invalidation.

The problem with focusing on content alone is that it proves too much. Trademarks, by definition, are made up of content, and many other provisions of federal law limit the right to register based on content, so, if this analysis holds, what additional previously-thought-well-settled provisions of federal trademark law will fall? Importantly, some even allow for injunctive relief: tarnishment.

Asked before, but will dilution by tarnishment survive this kind of strict free speech scrutiny? According to the CAFC in Brunetti, strict scrutiny applies even without viewpoint discrimination.

All that leads me to explore with you Brunetti’s line of “fuct” clothing, and in particular, this t-shirt which is surprisingly for sale online, here.

We’ll see for how long it’s available online, or whether Mr. Brunetti will need to Go Further, to get another brand’s attention, hello, Ford:

It’s hard to imagine the famous Ford logo, consisting of the distinctive script and blue oval, not being considered sufficiently famous and worthy of protection against dilution — without a showing of likelihood of confusion. But, given Tam and Brunetti, is a dilution by tarnishment claim even viable, or is it just another federal trademark provision about to fall, in favor of free speech.

Just because Mr. Brunetti may be anointed with a federal registration for the word “fuct” doesn’t mean his depiction of the word in the above style and design is lawful for use or registration.

So, if Ford does pursue the Brunetti t-shirt, under a dilution by tarnishment theory, and if it were considered to be a viable claim, in the end, might Mr. Brunetti be the one, let’s say, uniquely suited — to vanquish tarnishment protection from the Lanham Act?

Or, will another potty-mouth brand be the one to seriously probe the constitutionality of dilution protection against tarnishment?

Last but not least, and sadly for me, last Friday also was a big day for Mr. Daniel Snyder too.

  • James Mahoney

    So, would it be a free-speech issue if Brunetti claims that his Ford look-alike shirt is designed and intended to be a public statement option for a person owning a Ford that s/he considers to be a lemon? Recall that in an earlier time, some folks claimed that Ford was an acronym for Fix Or Repair Daily.

    And that, as pharmaceutical companies seem to claim, he can’t be responsible for someone’s “off label” use of his product?

    Just wondering.

  • Ron Coleman

    Great post. It is impossible to administer a trademark registration system without consideration of content, and indeed trademark law is premised on “discrimination” based on content — a point many left-wing commentators made in opposing registration of THE SLANTS. They predicted chaos if the logic of the Federal Circuit in In re Tam were followed to its logical extreme, which seemed … extreme. Now it doesn’t.

    On the other hand, I don’t have a big problem with the anticipated death of infringement via tarnishment, because (a) it is viewpoint, not content, based, and (b) I have a bigger problem with the prohibition of dilution in general.