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.

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.

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?

-Wes Anderson, Attorney

I hesitate to add to the fallout from Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court’s decision last week invalidating the disparagement clause of Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act. That said, here I go.

Many trademark practitioners, separate and apart from their reaction to the decision itself, now ask “where do we go from here?” The next shoe to drop, it seems, will see courts assessing the constitutionality of other provisions of the Lanham Act. One prevalent target – dilution, and it seems some observers are not optimistic about its future. Over at SCOTUSblog, Lisa Ramsey suggests “dilution laws and other expansive trademark doctrines that allow the government to prohibit or punish non-misleading uses of protected trademarks may not survive constitutional scrutiny after Tam.” She argues “Companies accused of trademark dilution may be able to argue that the dilution statute is an unconstitutional content-based regulation of non-misleading expression and is facially invalid under the First Amendment.”

This raises a broader question, one I have wondered since first studying trademark law: is the “bite” of trademark dilution as bad as its “bark”? It’s certainly fodder for trademark litigation – dilution claims are part and parcel of virtually all infringement complaints for famous trademarks. For a quick primer, “Trademark anti-dilution laws are intended to enable trademark owners to prevent the gradual weakening or whittling away of the strength of their marks, through blurring or tarnishment, even if the public is not likely to be confused.”

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An aptly-timed study from New York University entitled Is Trademark Dilution a Unicorn? An Experimental Investigation raises the same question, and raises a controversial conclusion: “dilution is theoretically plausible, but remains empirically unproven.” According to the study, the conventional wisdom to support trademark dilution relies on “a set of studies showing that respondents are slower to match brands to their product categories and product attributes after being exposed to an advertisement for a different product using the same or a similar brand name.” But the study’s authors say these studies were flawed – their “evidence of trademark dilution is actually the artifact of a flawed experimental design that fails to control for the effect of seeing a surprising advertisement.”

Food for thought as the Tam precedent spreads into other trademark statutes – the constitutional question may be less compelling than the empirical question – that is, whether dilution statutes protect consumers at all.

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.

 

We can be certain of one thing for sure, the Supreme Court’s decision today, striking down the disparagement clause of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act will be analyzed for some time.

The Court called the provision of the Lanham Act barring the federal registration of trademarks that consist of or comprise matter that may disparage persons, a “happy-talk clause,” concluding it violates the First Amendment.

The debate over the implications of the Tam decision has commenced, so stay tuned.

Those of you who know me well can appreciate, this is a tough pill to swallow, we’ll have to see what good can come from it.

And, the answer to a question I raised back in 2015 apparently will be answered “no,” but not for reasons I had hoped.

Ron, I had envisioned writing a very different post about the Supreme Court’s long-anticipated decision in Tam, you, your team, and Mr. Tam have made history.

By the way, anyone know who coined the phrase Happy-Talk Clause, I must have missed that in the briefing?

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It’s not every year that participants in the William E. McGee National Civil Rights Moot Court Competition need to understand the various nuances of federal trademark law.

Yet, with the Lee v. Tam case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act hanging in the balance, this was such a year for more than fifty competitors.

The weekend before last, yours truly had the distinct privilege of judging the final oral arguments in the McGee competition at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was ever so humbling to be part of a very distinguished panel of would-be U.S. Supreme Court Justices, hearing the oral arguments and probing the Constitutional issues in the Tam case.

The very distinguished portion of the panel included: The Honorable Peter M. Reyes, Jr. of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Esther Tomljanovich, Sharon Sandeen, Director of Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s Intellectual Property Institute, and Robert J. Gilbertson of the Greene Espel law firm.

The winning first place team hailed from Howard University (shown above), located in Washington, D.C., arguing in favor of the government’s position to uphold the Constitutionality of Section2(a). The second place finalist team came from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, arguing in favor of Simon Tam’s challenge to strike down the disparagement clause of Section 2(a) on First Amendment and Void for Vagueness grounds.

The would-be Supreme Court Justices were not judging the merits of the case, instead we judged the teams based on the quality and organization of their oral arguments.

It was inspiring to witness such strong intellect, confidence, poise, grace, and decorum, from each of the finalists — there is no doubt in my mind, they will all make fine lawyers, and they should all be very proud of their performances and high achievement.

Learning after the event that only three of the four finalists had taken an intellectual property course before, made their mastery of the issues even more impressive, hearty congratulations!

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One of the current challenges in trademark law addressed in Seattle last week at the Amazon Corporate Conference Center, host of the 2017 McCarthy Institute and Microsoft Corporation Symposium, is an issue we have discussed quite a bit here, namely Trademark Disparagement and the First Amendment. The panel to discuss this weighty topic included the following:

  • Marc Levy, Partner, Seed IP Law Group (moderator)
  • Tom McCarthy, Senior Professor, USF School of Law (author of the “multi-volume pre-eminent treatise on trademark law” called McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition)
  • Lorelei Ritchie, Administrative Trademark Judge, USPTO TTAB
  • Ron Coleman, Partner, Archer & Greiner
  • Makalika Naholowaa, Attorney, Corporate, External, & Legal Affairs, Microsoft
  • Stephen Coates, Senior Counsel, Amazon

To help set the table, as you may recall, oral argument occurred last month, and the Supreme Court is expected to decide the following trademark disparagement issue in the Lee v. Tam case involving The Slants mark within the next several months:

“Whether the disparagement provision of [Section 2(a) of] the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which provides that no trademark shall be refused registration on account of its nature unless, inter alia, it ‘[c]onsists of . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute’ is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

As we have written before, the Supreme Court is being asked by our friend Ron Coleman, on behalf of Simon Tam, to declare unconstitutional the disparagement prong of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, as a violation of Mr. Tam’s Free Speech rights under the First Amendment.

Although Ron was able to convince an eager Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, I continue to believe the Supreme Court will conclude otherwise and uphold Section 2(a) as a reasonable limit on access to a government program rather than a restriction on speech, because the registration denial does not limit Mr. Tam’s ability to use The Slants mark in commerce, or otherwise engage in expression or debate on any subject he wishes.

Section 2(a) is a provision that has been in force and applied by the USPTO for more than 70-years under its Constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce. And, most agree that if the disparagement prong of Section 2(a) falls, the scandalous and immoral prongs of Section 2(a) must fall too. Professor McCarthy noted that the government has conceded this very point in another parallel case involving the F-word (the dirty one from George Carlin’s seven dirty words, not this clean F-word) in the Brunetti case involving scandalous matter. Yet, keeping scandalous and immoral matter outside the contours of the United States trademark registration program has been part of federal law even longer, going all the way back to the 1905 Act, so there is a large mountain to climb in saying the Constitution has been violated as part of the federal government’s trademark registration program for more than 100 years.

One of the problems with Tam’s argument is it goes too far and would open the door to constitutional invalidation of a multitude of other content-based restrictions that further define the contours of the federal trademark registration program. In my humble opinion, the Law Professors Amicus Curiae brief filed on November 6, 2016, by Professor Christine Haight Farley of American University Washington College of Law and Professor Rebecca Tushnet of Georgetown University Law Center, make this and other points quite well.

Indeed, during the Symposium discussion on the constitutionality of Section 2(a), moderator Marc Levy noted that Tam has taken an “aggressive position” that the federal government’s trademark registry is essentially a “public forum” where no content restrictions are allowed.

On the other side of the argument, Stephen Coates provided examples of how some disparaging matter in the marketplace has been updated over time (like the visual depiction of the Aunt Jemima brand), or has simply gone away, like the Sambos restaurant chain. As I understand it, his contention is that we don’t need the Section 2(a) disparagement provision, since we should allow the market to decide what is unacceptable or not. He advanced the argument that using disparaging matter as a trademark won’t be successful in the marketplace in the end, but he didn’t address the pink elephant in the room, namely the continued use of the R-Word by the Washington NFL football franchise in the Nation’s capital.

Makalika Naholowaa, as a Board member of the National Native American Bar Association, countered quite effectively from my perspective that it is overly optimistic to conclude governmental regulation of disparagement is unnecessary in the context of the federal registration program. As to Tam’s re-appropriation argument that his intent is to change the meaning of The Slants, Naholowaa reported that all four bar associations of color believe that re-appropriation is not a good trade, and since society is not bending toward inclusion, we do need the government’s regulation of disparagement so they unanimously favor the Supreme Court upholding the disparagement provision of Section 2(a).

Administrative Law Judge Ritchie made some compelling points on Tam’s re-appropriation argument as well. She maintained that the USPTO decides each case on the evidence of record before the Examiner and the TTAB. And, unlike the Dykes on Bikes case, where substantial evidence was made of record to show the claimed mark non-disparaging at the time of registration, the same kind of evidence was not produced by Mr. Tam to overcome the disparagement refusal. In addition, she noted the USPTO can’t be in the business of considering the race or good intentions of an applicant since trademark rights can be assigned down the road to another not having the same race or intentions.

In the end, David Franklyn, Director of the McCarthy Institute and Professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, with a roving mic Phil Donohue-style, asked for a show of hands on how members of the audience would vote as a Supreme Court justice, and our friend Marty Schwimmer of The Trademark Blog, tweeted his assessment of the headcount to be 55/45 in favor of upholding the constitutionality of Section 2(a).

Then, Franklyn polled those on the panel as to how they would vote as Supreme Court justices in the Tam case, resulting in a 3-2 reversal of the Federal Circuit’s decision by show of hands, with one understandable abstention by TTAB Administrative Judge Ritchie.

Professor McCarthy, Marc Levy, and Makalika Naholowaa were all in favor of upholding the constitutionality of Section 2(a). Ron Coleman (not surprisingly) and Stephen Coates would affirm the CAFC’s decision in Tam.

I’m with Professor McCarthy and the majority, how would you vote, and why?