It’s not every day you’re presented with the unique opportunity of seeing and hearing the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court live in your own backyard, thanks very much Caleb!

Tuesday was that day, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. was here in Minneapolis for the 2018 Stein Lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Northrup Auditorium, as the Star Tribune reported.

SCOTUSBlog had this to say about the Chief Justice’s remarks. To listen to a recording of the event, to a sell out crowd of 2,700, check out MPR’s coverage, here.

Others reporting on this event don’t appear to care about trademarks as much as we do, so this may be the only place you’ll learn about Justice Roberts’ remarks relating to trademarks.

As you can imagine, knowing the vast body of legal subject matter confronted by the Supreme Court, clearly my ears perked up in hearing Justice Roberts utter the word “trademark” five times!

Moderator Robert Stein, former University of Minnesota Law School Dean, asked Chief Justice Roberts whether any highly technical subject matter might be unsuited for the Court to decide.

My mind went to the creation of the CAFC in 1982, specifically designed to hear all federal district court patent appeals, yet the Supreme Court has repeatedly reversed the CAFC since 2005.

Justice Roberts never mentioned the CAFC, instead he waxed a bit about trademark expertise:

“My answer, I think is, no, because usually no matter how complex and involved the legal issue, the case may seem, it implicates a broader legal question about, you know, the statute may be complicated, but the question is going to be, well, how do you go about reading the statute, what sources do you look at in a particular case. We don’t take technical legal cases because we like technical legal cases. They’re usually because they implicate a broader question. When I was practicing law, this is a speech I gave a lot of times, because I was not an expert in any area of the law. I like to think of myself as somebody who was good arguing in a particular court, in the Supreme Court, and so I’d have to, you know, convince someone who comes in with an important trademark case, who could hire the world’s leading expert in trademark law, or me.  And, I would tell them, look, the Supreme Court does not think your case is a big deal for trademark law. It thinks your case is a big deal for how regulations relate to the statute, how particular provisions in the statute should be read. So, you need somebody who, you know, can look at it in that broader perspective that the justices do, and you know, I would say, half of the time, they would say, well, I actually want somebody who knows something about trademark law, and that was understandable, but, then it would be, and, you know, they would get there in front of the Court, and they’re too expert in trademark law, and the justices just aren’t that interested in a lot of those nuances, and sometimes they would just be speaking over each other.”

My ears also perked up with Justice Roberts’ remarks about the Court’s fewer decisions:

“We have particular criteria for the cases we want to take. Obviously, if any court finds an Act of Congress unconstitutional, we will take it, we think as a matter of comity to the branches across the street, we should be the ones to say that, if any court is . . . .”

Do you see where I’m going with that remark, dear readers? I’m thinking about Erik Brunetti.

As you will recall, presently before the Supreme Court, is whether to hear the Brunetti case, and the issue presented in Brunetti is:

“Whether Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act’s prohibition on the federal registration of ‘immoral’ or ‘scandalous’ marks is facially invalid under the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Given the clarity of Justice Roberts’ statement, “if any court finds an Act of Congress unconstitutional, we will take it,” I’ll be amending my prediction otherwise, since the CAFC did just that, in Brunetti.

There are plenty of good reasons for the Court to decide the constitutionality of the “scandalous” and “immoral” language, separate and apart from the disparagement language found to violate the First Amendment in Tam (here, here, here, here, here, and here).

If the Court does hear Brunetti, let’s hope Section 7 of the Lanham Act — the provision expressly noting that federal registrations are issued “in the name of the United States of America” — won’t be some uninteresting and ignored “nuance” of trademark law to the justices.

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.

Over the weekend, IPBiz reported that WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) has filed an application to register 3:16 as a trademark for clothing items.

A Google search confirms that 3:16 has religious significance as it is a common truncation that signifies one of the most widely quoted verses from the Bible, namely, John 3:16.

Despite other confusing media reports that the WWE has “trademarked” 3:16, IPBiz is correct that an intent to use trademark application was filed by WWE at the end of July.

While I could hazard a guess, technically it is presently uncertain whether WWE intends a religious meaning, at least from the application file, as no specimen of use is of record yet.

Ironically, our firm’s firewall leaves me to hazard a guess on WWE’s intended meaning too.

Yes, our sturdy firewall has deemed anything appearing on the WWE website to be “unsafe or unsuitable” for access, so we may need the kind assistance of our dear readers to assist in our understanding of the meaning intended by the WWE for this claimed mark.

Either way, it will be interesting to follow the USPTO’s examination of this application, given the newly minted Examination Guide 2-17 on “Merely Informational Matter,” which directly targets religious matter, among other matter (citations omitted from below quote):

Some proposed marks comprise direct quotations, passages, or citations from religious texts (e.g., JOHN 3:16 and I AM THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE. NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT THROUGH ME).  Religious texts are holy books or scriptures, such as the Bible, Quran, Torah, and Diamond Sutra, which the different religions or spiritual movements consider sacred or essential to their religious traditions and beliefs. Such quotations, passages, or citations are often used by the providers of goods/services (and by consumers) as an expression of affiliation with, support for, or endorsement of the ideals or concepts found in the religious texts in which the quotation, passage, or citation originated. Because consumers are accustomed to seeing such wording used in this manner in the marketplace, consumers are unlikely to perceive it as indicating source and instead would perceive the wording as conveying a merely informational message of religious affiliation, endorsement, or support for the messages in the texts.

Where a quotation, passage, or citation from a religious text serves as an indicator of support or affiliation and not of source, such wording fails to function as a mark.  The refusal applies regardless of whether the identified goods/services themselves are religious in nature.  However, the inclusion of religious goods/services further supports this refusal.  The following examples illustrate this point:

  • Mark is comprised, in its entirety, of a direct quotation/passage and/or citation from a religious text (e.g., Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth The Qur’an, Surah An-Nur 24:35; I AM THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH AND THE LIGHT.  NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT THROUGH ME; or MATTHEW 19:26).  The entire mark must be refused registration because the matter fails to function as a mark.

  • Mark is comprised, in part, of a direct quotation/passage and/or citation from a religious text and registrable matter (e.g., Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one and the image of the Earth being held in a pair of hands; ROMANS 8:28 and an image of a teddy bear).  The direct quotation/passage and/or citation must be disclaimed because they fail to function as marks.

Do you think the WWE will be wrestling with USPTO over the meaning of 3:16 soon?

If so, how might the USPTO explain the issuance of these registrations: 3:16, Studio 3:16, and 3:16 Lure Co?

And, finally, might the newly minted examination guide conflict with the recent Supreme Court decision in Tam, holding that the USPTO’s refusal of federal trademark registration based on viewpoint violates Freedom of Speech?

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.