It was another star-studded event in Seattle last night, enjoy some pics from Meet the Bloggers:

The Ironmongers are Reunited:

Friendly Ron Coleman, John Welch, Steve Baird
Skeptical Ron Coleman, Steady Welch and Baird
Concerned Ron Coleman, Steady Welch and Baird
Animated Ron Coleman, Mildly Amused Welch and Baird

Much Going on Under the Light of a Full Moon:

Marty Schwimmer Focusing as Carl Oppedahl Howls at the full Moon?

The Ayes Have it, About What I Don’t Recall?

Ron Coleman, Carl Oppedahl, and Pamela Chestek, in Favor, Among Others

More Celebration Under the Full Moon?

Tara Aaron Sticks Her Landing, and the Crowd Applauds

Karaoke? Maybe a Little Jackson Browne, Running on Empty?

Eric Pelton Lead, with Backup Vocals by Carl Oppedahl?
Above all the Nonsense? Pleasant and Bright Susan Montgomery and Marty Schwimmer

Ron Continues to Steal the Show With Multiple Facial Expressions:

Friendly Tiffany Blofield, Confident Ron Coleman, Friendly Erik Pelton
Friendly Tiffany Blofield, Amplified Ron Coleman, Friendly Erik Pelton
Steady Tiffany Blofield, Say Cheesy Ron Coleman, Steady Erik Pelton

We look forward to Meet the Bloggers VX in Boston, next year, around this same time, stay tuned.

Yesterday in Seattle — where nearly 11,000, sleepless, brand protection, trademark, and IP professionals from 150 countries have registered and converged for INTA’s 140th Annual Meeting — yours truly had the distinct pleasure of sharing some thoughts on the intersection between federal trademark registration and Free Speech. Here are some before, during and after pics:

Before:

 

During:

 

 

After:

Steve Baird, Amanda Blackhorse, Joel MacMull, Simon Tam
Professor Lisa Ramsey, Steve Baird, and Professor Christine Haight Farley whispering in Steve’s ear

Highlights:

Amanda Blackhorse:

Message to Daniel Snyder: “You cannot force honor on someone.”

Steve Baird:

“Federal trademark registration is a giant exception to Free Speech.”

Other messages drawn from here, here, here, here, and here.

Simon Tam:

Interpreting USPTO: “They said we were too Asian!”

Joel MacMull:

The Tam case never should have been decided on Constitutional grounds!

Great questions from the engaged crowd, wish there had been much more time!

What were your highlights from the panel discussion?

UPDATE: Simon Tam, writing about Paper Justice, here.

Looking forward to sharing the podium with Joel MacMull of the Archer firm (counsel for Simon Tam, where our friend Ron Coleman is a partner) to discuss “Trademark Registration and the First Amendment,” on September 28th at the Midwest IP Institute in Minneapolis.

As a drum roll leading up to that discussion, and since there is so much to digest in the recent Supreme Court decision in Tam, I thought I’d do a series of posts on the decision and its implications, beyond what I’ve already written.

In this first installment, my focus will be on critiquing (as a trademark type) the opinion of the Court, that is, the portion of the decision written by Justice Alito, to which all seven of the other Justices agreed (the ninth, Justice Gorsuch, did not participate in the decision).

In a nutshell, my principal problem with the Court’s opinion is that all eight Justices have conflated the federal government’s issuance of a Certificate of Registration with the underlying applied-for trademark. The Court ignored that the meaning of each is distinct.

The meaning of the underlying trademark is one thing, determined by how the relevant public perceives and understands the applied-for mark. As an aside, the Court seemed more interested in Mr. Tam’s intentions in using an admitted racial slur as a trademark.

Yet, the meaning of the Certificate of Registration is quite different. It signifies that the federal government has approved the applied-for trademark for registration and issued a federal registration “in the name of the United States of America.

It would be easier to accept and respect the decision of the Court had it acknowledged and attempted to explain why Congress is powerless under the Commerce Clause to regulate what the USPTO may issue “in the name of the United States of America.”

Perhaps the Court’s conflation in Tam should be no surprise, as a few years ago, the unanimous Supreme Court in B&B Hardware, essentially conflated the right to register a trademark with the right to use the trademark.

Another concerning aspect of the Court’s opinion is how it seriously overstated what was at issue in Tam. It held that in denying federal registration to a mark consisting of a racial slur, the disparagement clause of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act “violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment” because it “offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

To be clear, the only speech even potentially banned under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act relates to forbidding the use of the federal registration symbol — ® — next to the racial slur, because that symbol may not be used, unless a Certificate of Registration has been issued for the mark in question.

To the extent the ® symbol constitutes speech at all, the symbol ought to be considered government speech (which is outside First Amendment scrutiny), since federal governmental approval is required in order to use it in commerce.

The Court missed the point when it stated the obvious: “Trademarks are private, not government speech.” The better and more relevant question would have asked whether the ® symbol is purely private speech. Seems obvious to me it’s not.

While the underlying trademark has a certain meaning and constitutes private speech, the federal government’s issuance of a Certificate of Registration and allowing the use of the ® symbol to signify this fact, cannot fairly be considered private speech. Instead, by definition, it connotes governmental approval.

On this point, the Court was unconvincing when it cited a 55-year old concurring opinion from the late Federal Circuit Judge Giles Rich for the proposition “it is unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of the public has any idea what federal registration of a trademark means.”

In that case, Judge Rich claimed, at least in 1962: “The purchasing public knows no more about trademark registration than a man walking down the street in a strange city knows about legal title to the land and buildings he passes.”

In my experience, all sorts of folks know that the ® symbol cannot be used without first obtaining approval from the federal government. Goodness, Forbes writes about it, National Law Journal, admitted non-lawyers, and a multitude of others do too, including us.

Friends, what do you think, do the folks understand and appreciate that the ® symbol is special and cannot be used without first obtaining approval from the federal government?

In Monday’s decision in the newly minted Matal v. Tam case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit decision that the Trademark Office’s refusal to register THE SLANTS mark on disparagement grounds was unconstitutional.  Many were not surprised by this decision, foreshadowed in part by the transcript of the January oral argument where the justices leaned heavily into the government’s position.  If anything surprised me here, it was that the Court unanimously affirmed the Federal Circuit in an IP case.  The Court held that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act was unconstitutional as being viewpoint discrimination by the government.

Many of the news articles that I read about the decision on Monday suggested this decision would open the floodgates to disparaging or offensive marks.  But they’re already there, as many of the briefs in this matter pointed out.  Some have even been found disparaging by other government agencies.

Take, for example, the RAGING BITCH mark that I discussed two years ago.  The Trademark Office stamped a brilliantly gold seal of approval on a registration certificate for that mark for beer, yet the Michigan liquor commission refused to allow the label because it was deemed disparaging and offensive to women.  The Sixth Circuit found the Michigan authority’s refusal unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, perhaps a prelude to the Court’s decision here.

The holding in Tam seemingly applies not only to trademark law, but also at least to patents and alcohol labels.  Section 1504.01(e) of the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP) says that “design applications which disclose subject matter which could be deemed offensive to any race, religion, sex, ethnic group, or nationality, such as those which include caricatures or depictions, should be rejected as nonstatutory subject matter under 35 U.S.C. 171.”   Section 608 of the MPEP also states that an examiner should object to any papers during the course of the examination of a patent that use language “that could be deemed offensive to any race, religion, sex, ethnic group, or nationality.”  The Tax and Trade Bureau that regulates the alcohol industry from a federal level also includes language that is obscene or indecent from appearing on a label.  See 27 CFR 4.39(a)(3)27 CFR 5.42(a)(3) ; and 27 CFR 7.29(a)(3).  While much has been said about the government’s position in Tam not limiting Tam’s ability to use THE SLANTS, at least this TTB labeling provision in fact does prevent an alcohol manufacturer from using the offensive language.  In the wake of Tam, we are likely to see new challenges to these and other regulations that apply viewpoint discrimination by the government in a manner similar to that of Section 2(a).

Many have exclaimed “how will we stop all these offensive marks?”  This problem doesn’t require a government solution.   Just this April 2017, the Brewers Association recently updated their Marketing and Advertising Code to prevent the use of marks and materials that “contain sexually explicit, lewd or demeaning brand names, language, text, graphics, photos, video or other images that reasonable adult consumers would find inappropriate for consumer products offered to the public” and/or “contain derogatory or demeaning text or images.”  Perhaps other industries – and even the NFL – could take a cue from this self-policing strategy.