Last Friday, the Supreme Court decided it will hear the Brunetti case, and take a closer look at Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the portion forbidding federal registration of trademarks having matter that is scandalous or immoral.

So, it appears my big prediction for 2019 is pointing in the affirmative direction:

“In terms of my big trademark prediction for 2019, it will be revealed whether the scandalous bar to federal registration is invalidated, whether or not the Supreme Court agrees to hear Brunetti.”

Now that the Court has decided to review Brunetti, it will be the one to decide whether the “scandalous” and “immoral” bars to registration violate the First Amendment, not the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

So, perhaps Chief Justice John Roberts was foreshadowing a review of Brunetti, when he was speaking in Minneapolis, and said: “Obviously, if any court finds an Act of Congress unconstitutional, we will take it . . . .

To piggyback on what I wrote back in October:

“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.”

You may recall, I previously said this about the Federal Circuit’s overreach in Brunetti:

“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.”

I’m thinking the Court will decide that the Federal Circuit went too far in Brunetti, and it will find a way to retain the “scandalous” bar to federal registration, though I’m doubting the “immoral” bar will survive, so stay tuned.

What are your predictions dear readers?

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.

Erik Brunetti is not one step closer to being able to federally-register his vulgar and scandalous FUCT trademark for clothing; his portfolio of applications remain log jammed (here and here):

So, scandalous trademark applications are still on hold at the U.S. Trademark Office, since the government is now asking for the Supreme Court to reverse Brunetti. First prediction, check.

As you will recall, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Brunetti, struck down the scandalous and immoral bar on federal trademark registration, as a violation of Free Speech.

The government now contends that denying federal registration of scandalous or immoral matter does not constitute viewpoint discrimination, so Brunetti isn’t controlled by the Tam decision.

The scandalous and immoral registration bar has been applied since the 1905 Trademark Act, and “scandalous” is interpreted to mean, under current attitudesshocking to the sense of propriety.

Putting aside whether much of anything in our current culture can be considered shocking, if it’s possible, doesn’t shocking content express a certain viewpoint, namely one with shock value?

And, if Justice Alito was right in Tam that the disparagement bar is a “happy talk clause,” then isn’t the scandalous bar a “tranquility clause,” appropriately and fully cleansing of any shock value?

Will the Supreme Court decide to review the Brunetti decision? I’ve predicted it won’t, but it should, so I’m hoping to be wrong, it would be priceless to see the Court address Section 7:

“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?”

That drum we have been beating hard, so kudos to the government in pressing Section 7:

“Congress’s directve that the USPTO refuse federal trademark registration to vulgar words and lewd sexual images is consistent with those First Amendment principles. Congress legitimately determined that a federal agency should not use government funds to issue certificates ‘in the name of the United States of America’ conferring statutory benefits for use of vulgar words and lewd sexual images. 15 U.S.C. 1057(a). Although [Erik Brunetti] has a First Amendment right to use a vulgar word as a mark for his clothing line, he has no comparable right to require the government to register vulgar terms, issue registration certificates for them in the name of the United States, inscribe them on the USPTO’s Principal Register, and bestow valuable benefits on the markholders’ use of the terms in commerce.”

Even if it ends again, with the Free Speech argument prevailing, for reasons beyond my beliefs (here, here, and here), nevertheless it would be helpful for predicting the fate of other portions of the Lanham Act that are content-based and that have been called into question. Wait and see:

Trademarks consisting of or comprising “scandalous or immoral” matter still won’t be granted federal registration “in the name of the United States of America,” at least for the time being.

Immediately on the heels of the International Trademark Association’s 140th Annual Meeting in Seattle, and our well-received panel discussion concerning Trademarks and Free Speech, the United States Patent and Trademark Office announced it will continue to hold on to and suspend trademark applications containing scandalous or immoral matter, until further notice.

The Trademark Office is waiting to see whether the federal government will appeal the Brunetti decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. What I would give to be a fly on the wall in those discussions.

As you may recall, a three-member panel of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC), ruled last December that the “scandalous or immoral” statutory bar to registration violates a trademark applicant’s Free Speech, overturning a part of trademark law in existence since 1905.

Since the federal government’s request that the entire CAFC reconsider the three-member panel decision Brunetti was denied in April, the government now has until July 11 to seek Supreme Court review or ask for more time to decide, stay tuned. Learned John Welch predicts no appeal.

During our INTA panel discussion, I predicted the government will seek review of Brunetti by the U.S. Supreme Court. I also predicted the Supreme Court will pass on the request, stay tuned.

Even if it might be tempting to believe that — in our present culture — anything goes and nothing can rise to the level of scandalousness any longer, so why bother trying to salvage a statutory relic from more than 100 years ago, I’m thinking the federal government won’t throw in the towel yet.

As we’ve written before, the Brunetti decision, didn’t anchor itself to the viewpoint discriminatory requirement from the Supreme Court in Tam, instead focusing on mere content discrimination to justify invalidation of a more than a century old part of federal trademark law.

This much easier test for invalidation puts at risk many other portions of federal trademark law, so I’m thinking the federal government can’t let the mere content discriminatory requirement of Brunetti stand without at least trying for Supreme Court review for further direction and guidance.

It’s also hard to believe the federal government is truly ready to have the USPTO knowingly begin to federally register obscene, profane, and sexually explicit matter as trademarks, “in the name of the United States of America,” for the first time in history. What’s your prediction?

UPDATE: Susan Decker of Bloomberg interviewed and shares quotes yours truly on the subject, here.

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.

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?

Daniel Snyder, NFL owners, FEDEX, and other NFL sponsors, take note, breaking news from courageous Neal M. Brown, Ed.D., Head of School, Green Acres School in Bethesda, Maryland, about twenty miles from FEDEX Field:

“[T]he term ‘Redskin’ is a racial slur. Its use, whether intentional or not, can be deeply insulting and offensive. It is a term that demeans a group of people. Similarly, the team’s logo also can reasonably be viewed as racially demeaning. At best, the image is an ethnic stereotype that promotes cultural misunderstanding; at worst, it is intensely derogatory.”

“As such, having students or staff members on campus wearing clothing with this name and/or this team logo feels profoundly at odds with our community’s mission and values. We pledge in our Diversity Statement to foster both ‘an inclusive and uplifting community’ and ‘a sense of belonging for everyone in the Green Acres community.’ Similarly, our Statement of Inclusion calls upon us to ‘welcome people of any race, national, or ancestral origin,’ among other social identifiers. Further, as our guidelines for ‘appropriate dress’ in the Community Handbook require students to ‘dress in ways that demonstrate respect for others,’ we cannot continue to allow children or staff members—however well intentioned—to wear clothing that disparages a race of people.”

“I ask that you please not send your children to school wearing clothing with either the team name or logo in the year and years to come. I will be speaking with students to share with them my decision and to enlist their understanding and support. Additionally, we invite you to reach out to us with any questions you may have about how to discuss this with your child.”

Again, not so fast, Mr. Snyder, the R-Word is looking awfully scandalous these days, and this issue isn’t going away . . . .

See coverage from USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, and Sports Illustrated.

UPDATE from Time: The NFL Needs to Stop Promoting a Racial Slur

Lee Corso (former coach and ESPN football analyst) frequently utters this famous sports media catchphrase on ESPN’s “College GameDay” program: “Not so fast, my friend!

The first three words of that phrase come to mind upon hearing that THRILLED Daniel Snyder (majority owner of the NFL football franchise nearest the Nation’s Capitol) is celebrating Simon Tam’s (and Tam’s talented lawyers’) recent victory at the Supreme Court.

Excluded are the last two words as inapplicable, as I’ve never met Mr. Snyder, so I can’t say he’s my friend, and if even a small fraction of what Rolling Stone says about him is true, friendship seems unlikely, unless of course, he engages the services of an expert to rebrand the franchise (without the racial slur), something I asked for eight years ago.

Yet, “not so fast,” as a week ago, the government filed a brief with the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, asking the Federal Circuit to affirm the TTAB’s refusal to register FUCT based on the scandalous portion of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, despite Tam.

The Department of Justice further contends that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tam does not implicate the First Amendment in terms of scandalous matter, because unlike the stricken disparagement portion of 2(a), the remaining scandalous portion is viewpoint neutral.

To the extent the Justice Department prevails and the current bar on registration of “scandalous” matter survives First Amendment scrutiny with the Federal Circuit’s review in the Brunetti case, this could impact Daniel Snyder’s currently suspended R-Word trademark applications (here, here, and here), and the NFL’s suspended Boston Redskins application.

While the decades-old R-Word registrations challenged in Harjo and Blackhorse appear safe from cancellation given the ruling in Tam, what stops others from opposing registration of any future R-Word applications (or any of the currently suspended applications, if published) as containing scandalous matter in violation of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act?

If the scandalous bar to registration survives First Amendment scrutiny, opposers (unlike cancellation petitioners) would have the significant benefit of only needing to show (at the time of an opposition decision) that the current R-Word applications have scandalous matter.

It’s a question of the timing of proof necessary, in other words, no time machine would be required to determine how the relevant public perceived the R-Word marks back in the late 1960s when the first R-Word registration issued for the team; those would not be at issue.

It’s also a question of who comprises the relevant public. For disparaging matter, it was Native Americans. For scandalous matter, it would be the general public, although not necessarily a majority, but instead a “substantial composite of the general public.”

The Act’s present prohibition on the registration of scandalous matter reaches matter that is “shocking to the sense of propriety, offensive to the conscience or moral feelings or calling out for condemnation.” Wouldn’t unambiguous racial slurs qualify for this treatment?

Who’s ready to carry the next, but new flame, if needed, to oppose registration of any R-Word applications that publish for opposition, contending that a substantial composite of the general public finds the applied-for marks “shocking” to their sense of propriety and/or “offensive” to their conscience?

Even those who fought hard to undue the disparagement provision of Section 2(a) for Simon Tam, see Daniel Snyder’s team name in a very different light, and let’s also say, not a very sympathetic light. And, the general public today is not the public from 50 years ago.

Finally, given the vast public attention and support this issue has received over the last quarter century, it would be more than interesting to see what kind of a record could be developed on the scandalous ground for registration refusal, today, and not decades ago.

So, not so fast, let’s see what happens to the scandalous portion of Section 2(a) in Brunetti, before allowing Daniel Snyder to celebrate Tam too strongly, my friends.

UPDATE: The NFL’s Boston Redskins trademark application has been removed from suspension, reports Erik Pelton, so, who will oppose if published, and why hasn’t the USPTO issued a new refusal on scandalous grounds yet?

The headline might be considered old news to some, but since intellectual property attorneys from around the world will be descending upon Minneapolis for the remainder of the week, and since I’ll be speaking tomorrow at the American Intellectual Property Law Association Spring Meeting at the Minneapolis Hilton, on the history and public policy behind denying the federal registration of scandalous trademarks, it just seems like news all over again.

SandroBotticelliVirginChild

Did you know that the first reported Court of Appeals decision on the trademark registration prohibition against scandalous matter interpreted Section 5(a) of the 1905 Trademark Act, predecessor to the current version of the law, Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act?

In Riverbank Canning Co., 95 F.2d 327 (C.C.P.A. 1938), a divided panel of the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals in Washington D.C., affirmed the Commissioner’s decision that had affirmed the USPTO Examining Attorney’s refusal to register MADONNA as a trademark for wine, as comprising scandalous matter under federal trademark law.

The majority held that “among all English-speaking peoples, the word ‘Madonna’ is generally understood to refer to the Virgin Mary or to a pictorial representation of the Virgin Mary.” And, while “Madonna” is not per se scandalous, it was in the context of wine trademarks circa 1938:

“We can readily understand that many who are accustomed to the use of wine as a beverage, remembering the use of it as a beverage in Biblical times, would not be shocked at the use of the word ‘Madonna’ or a representation of the Virgin Mary as a trade-mark upon wine used for beverage purposes; but we also believe that there are many wine users who, knowing that the excessive use of wine is a great evil and not uncommon, would be shocked by such use of said mark upon wine, especially in view of the fact that such mark would probably be displayed among other places, in barrooms.”

“In our opinion, to commercialize the name of, or a representation of, the Virgin Mary as a trade-mark is of very doubtful propriety, and we feel certain that its use upon wine for beverage purposes would be shocking to the sense of propriety of nearly all who do not use wine as a beverage, and also to many who do so use it; therefore, we think such use of the word ‘Madonna’ would be scandalous and its registration prohibited under said trade-mark act.”

That viewpoint and decision finding scandal with the use of MADONNA as a trademark for wine was reaffirmed decades later in 1959, when a German company tried and failed to convince the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) that the result should be any different under the prohibition against registration of scandalous matter under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. P.J. Valckenberg, GmbH, 122 U.S.P.Q. 334 (TTAB 1959).

But something must have happened between 1959 and 2008, when a persistent Valckenberg tried again and again, until finally no scandalous refusal was lodged by the USPTO, finally allowing MADONNA to become federally-registered for wine in 2008:

MadonnaWineI’m thinking another meaning of MADONNA began to emerge — circa 1979 –that altered and distracted from the previous and exclusive reference to the Virgin Mary relied upon by decision makers in the prior cases mentioned above, maybe this:

Madonna

Keep in mind that the relevant public for purposes of determining whether the mark in question violates the “scandalous” language of Section 2(a) is the general public. And, to support a refusal on the ground that a mark is scandalous, the USPTO’s assigned examining attorney must provide evidence that a substantial portion of the general public would consider the mark to be scandalous in the context of contemporary attitudes and the relevant marketplace. In re Mavety Media, 33 F.3d 1371-72, 31 USPQ2d 1925-26 (Fed. Cir. 1994); TMEP 1203.01.

In other words, the times they are a changing, and if an edgy brand owner waits long enough, what was once considered scandalous matter might later be considered in vogue (pun intended), making it available subject matter for federal trademark registration, i.e., Madonna Wine.

And, now that the word MADONNA apparently lacks any commercial edginess, it appears Ms. Ciccone is migrating to a more truncated version with fewer vowels: MDNA.

What’s next, perhaps even more truncation to a single letter, can you say AlphaWatch?

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

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.