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?

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.

Yesterday the Federal Circuit issued its decision in In re Tam, an appeal filed by a musician whose application to register the mark THE SLANTS had been refused registration on the ground that it was disparaging to Asian Americans. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) relied on the same provision to cancel the registrations for the REDSKINS trademarks owned by the Washington D.C. NFL franchise.  The applicant in Tam appealed, arguing that the provision violated the First Amendment. The Federal Circuit agreed and struck down the provision as unconstitutional.

The specific provision at issue is Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, codified at 15 U.S.C. Section 1052. The provision provides, in pertinent part:

No trademark by which the goods of the applicant may be distinguished from the goods of others shall be refused registration on the principal register on account of its nature unless it [c]onsists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute[.]

The decision – all 105 pages – presents a number of interesting legal issues to explore. We’ll analyze the substance of the decision in the coming days, weeks, and months. However, the most interesting aspect is not what the decision says, but where the decision may go. The In re Tam decision directly conflicts with the Eastern District of Virginia ruling in Pro-Football v. Blackhorse, which upheld the TTAB’s ruling cancelling the REDSKINS trademark.

In Blackhorse, the court concluded that the provision did not implicate the First Amendment because a lack of registration does “not burden, restrict, or prohibit  [the] ability to use the marks.” However, the Federal Circuit disagreed. It concluded that the denial of a registration “creates a serious disincentive to adopt a mark which the government may deem offensive or disparaging.” The Blackhorse court also found that the registration of trademarks constituted government speech, making it exempt from First Amendment challenges. The court reasoned that, in denying registration to disparaging marks, the Trademark Office is “exercising editorial discretion.” The Federal Circuit disagreed, instead concluding that the issuance of registrations was merely a regulatory activity: processing trademark applications into registrations. The Washington Redskins have appealed the district court’s decision to the Fourth Circuit.

Given that the Tam decision invalidates a federal statute, there is a good chance that the Supreme Court will decide to review the decision. However, a review will be all but guaranteed if the Fourth Circuit upholds the District Court’s decision, resulting in a circuit split.  That case is still in the briefing stage and no oral arguments have yet been scheduled. As a result we’re not likely to have a decision until the fall of 2016 at the earliest.  It’s going to be harder that waiting to open Christmas presents…

TJ Root/Getty Images

 

In appealing the cancellation of six trademarks, the Washington Redskins filed their opening brief in the Fourth Circuit this week.  Cancellation of the team’s REDSKINS trademarks was upheld by a federal district court in July.  The marks were deemed “disparaging” under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which denies trademark protection to marks that are scandalous or disparaging.

The team is now appealing the district court’s decision.  A primary argument presented in the team’s opening appeal brief is the First Amendment argument.  Essentially, the Washington team argues that cancellation of its trademarks under Section 2(a) violates free speech rights, because the marks are a form of expressive speech.  Of course even without a federal trademark registration, a mark may still be used.  The team can still call themselves the Redskins and sell Redskins merchandise, but cancellation of the marks means they will not enjoy the protections and benefits that accompany federal registration.  The team argues that by denying those protections and benefits of the federal trademark registration, the government is infringing on the team’s free speech rights.

The lower court held that Section 2(a) does not violate the First Amendment, in part, because federal registration of a trademark represents a form of government speech, rather than private speech.  That is, the government may freely choose which marks it wishes to include as part of its federal trademark registration program.

In an effort to thwart this argument and show that federal trademark registration is not a form of government speech, the Washington team made the bold choice to include in its brief a long list of—colorful—marks that have been successfully registered.  The list seems primarily compiled from the adult entertainment industry, and includes, among many, many others, TAKE YO PANTIES OFF clothing, SLUTSSEEKER dating services, and MILFSDOPORN.COM pornography.  A footnote in the brief actually states that “word limits” prevented the team from adding even more to their offending list.

While the purported purpose was to address whether trademark registration represents government speech, the sheer length of the list leaves the distinct impression of an underlying argument: Well if these dirty words can be trademarked, why can’t we just trademark our team name?

At first blush, it may seem like a fair argument.  As presented in the brief, the list of clearly offensive marks makes one wonder why these too were not cancelled or denied registration.

One reason may be that potentially scandalous and disparaging marks are viewed in the context of the goods or services and the market with which they will be associated.  Consider that the goods and market of the porn industry are very different than the goods and market of an NFL team.  MILFSDOPORN.COM may not be scandalous or disparaging in the context of providing adult entertainment.

Another reason may be that most of the unsavory marks listed in the team’s brief are unlikely “disparaging,” and would more likely fall into the “scandalous” category of Section 2(a).  Section 2(a) excludes from registration marks that are scandalous and marks that are disparaging.  The test for scandalous marks is different from that for disparaging marks.

Disparagement relates to a particular person or group.  Some marks that have been denied as disparaging are HEEB and SQUAW for clothing.  To determine whether a mark is disparaging, the test looks to whether a substantial composite of the group referenced by the potentially disparaging mark would find the mark disparaging in the context of the particular goods or services.

In contrast, potentially scandalous marks are viewed with respect to the broader public’s opinions.  Marks such as COCAINE for soft drinks have been denied registration as scandalous.  The test for determining whether a mark is scandalous looks to whether a substantial composite of the general public would find the mark scandalous in the context of the particular goods or services.  Each test looks to a group of people to determine whether something is offensive, but the scandalous test looks to a larger and broader group, the general public.

TAKE YO PANTIES OFF, SLUTSSEEKER, MILFSDOPORN.COM, and many others on the team’s list would seem to fall under the more general “scandalous” category, because the terms do not seem to target a particular person or group in the way that a mark like REDSKINS does.  (Surely MILFS are not an identifiable group.)  Given that the scandalous test looks to the broad opinions of general public, rather than of a particular group, it may be an easier task to register a potentially scandalous mark than a potentially disparaging mark.  Just ask The Slants.