On December 22, 2015, the Lanham Act’s prohibition on the registration of disparaging trademarks was held unconstitutional by the Federal Circuit, paving the way for federal registrations for REDSKINS, HEEB, N.I.G.G.A. and other marks previously denied federal trademark status.
In re Simon Shiao Tam, Case No. 14-1203 (Decision filed on December 22, 2015)
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit declared Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. § 1052(a)) unconstitutional. Section 2(a) bars the US Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) from registering scandalous, immoral or disparaging marks.
The case came to the Federal Circuit by way of appeal from a decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) in In Re Simon Shiao Tam. The TTAB upheld the USPTO’s refusal to register the name of Mr. Tam’s Asian-American dance-rock band, the SLANTS. Mr. Tam purposely named his band with a pejorative term in order to make a statement about racial and cultural issues. A panel of the Federal Circuit upheld the TTAB decision earlier this year, but shortly thereafter, the Court granted, sua sponte, a rehearing en banc on the issue of constitutionality. Oral argument was held on October 2, 2015.
The Federal Circuit decision was resolute: “Many of the marks rejected as disparaging convey hurtful speech that harms members of oft-stigmatized communities. But the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech.” Thus, the court concluded,
[t]he government cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks… The government regulation at issue amounts to viewpoint discrimination, and under the strict scrutiny review appropriate for government regulation of message or viewpoint, we conclude that the disparagement proscription of § 2(a) is unconstitutional. Because the government has offered no legitimate interests justifying § 2(a), we conclude that it would also be unconstitutional under the intermediate scrutiny traditionally applied to regulation of the commercial aspects of speech.
Actually, in this case, it isn’t clear that the government disapproved of the expressive message conveyed by the mark. In his application, Mr. Tam stated that the band “feel[s] strongly that Asians should be proud of their cultural heri[ta]ge and not be offended by stereotypical descriptions,” and that their aim was to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes.
Despite the message that Mr. Tam intended to convey, the TTAB found that the applied for mark was disparaging to a substantial component of people of Asian descent because “dictionary definitions, reference works and all other evidence unanimously categorize the word ‘slant,’ when meaning a person of Asian descent, as disparaging,” and because there was record evidence of individuals and groups in the Asian community objecting to Mr. Tam’s use of the word.”
The USPTO has refused to register numerous marks on the ground of disparagement — most notoriously REDSKINS for the Washington football team. Other rejected marks include STOP THE ISLAMISATION OF AMERICA, THE CHRISTIAN PROSTITUTE, MORMON WHISKEY, KHORAN (for wine), HAVE YOU HEARD THAT SATAN IS A REPUBLICAN?, RIDE HARD RETARD, ABORT THE REPUBLICANS, HEEB, SEX ROD, MARRIAGE IS FOR FAGS, DEMOCRATS SHOULDN’T BREED, REPUBLICANS SHOULDN’T BREED, 2 DYKE MINIMUM, WET BAC, URBAN INJUN, SQUAW, DON’T BE A WET BACK, FAGDOG, and N.I.G.G.A. NATURALLY INTELLIGENT GOD GIFTED AFRICANS. As with SLANTS, applications for some of these intended marks (e.g., HEEB and N.I.G.G.A.) were filed by people from the very communities that the marks were held to disparage. The application for HEEB, for instance, was filed by a progressive Jewish organization. In that case, the TTAB rejected the applicant’s argument that the Examining Attorney “ignored the context and manner in which applicant’s mark is used when determining whether the likely meaning of applicant’s mark is disparaging to the Jewish community” and that “many of this country’s most established Jewish philanthropies and cultural organizations have openly and actively supported Applicant’s magazine and events through their continued funding and sponsorship.” The Board ruled that “[w]hether a proposed mark is disparaging must be determined from the standpoint of a substantial composite of the referenced group (although not necessarily a majority) in the context of contemporary attitudes.” In re Heeb Media, LLC, 89 USPQ2d 1071 (TTAB 2008) [precedential]. In other words, the particular viewpoint of the applicant was irrelevant to whether the mark was “disparaging.” Given prior decisions, the USPTO’s and TTAB’s rejection of Mr. Tam’s application for SLANTS came as no surprise.
A disparaging mark is defined as one which “dishonors by comparison with what is inferior, slights, deprecates, degrades, or affects or injures by unjust comparison.” In order to determine whether a mark is disparaging, the USPTO considers the following:
(1) What is the likely meaning of the matter in question, taking into account not only dictionary definitions, but also the relationship of the matter to the other elements in the mark, the nature of the goods or services, and the manner in which the mark is used in the marketplace in connection with the goods or services; and
(2) If that meaning is found to refer to identifiable persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, whether that meaning may be disparaging to a substantial composite of the referenced group.
Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure, § 1203.03(b)(i) (Jan. 2015 ed.)
The Federal Circuit found that since the test for disparagement is determined by whether “a substantial composite of the referenced group would find the mark disparaging,” it is “clear that it is the nature of the message conveyed by the speech which is being regulated. If the mark is found disparaging by the referenced group, it is denied registration.” Under principles of constitutional law, regulations that are not content neutral, i.e, that target speech based on its communicative content, are upheld only if the government proves they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests. Viewpoint discrimination, which targets the substance of the particular viewpoint being expressed, is subject to even greater scrutiny. The Federal Circuit found that Section 2(a) “amounts to viewpoint discrimination, and under the strict scrutiny review appropriate for government regulation of message or viewpoint, we conclude that the disparagement proscription of § 2(a) is unconstitutional.”
The Court’s decision is ultimately hinged on its finding that the effect, if not the very purpose, of Section 2(a) is to disfavor certain viewpoints. According to the government, Section 2(a) is important because the government disagrees with the message that disparaging marks convey, based on how the message is received by an identifiable community or portion thereof. Although the government claimed that the USPTO doesn’t reject marks based on their viewpoints, this appears to be true only with respect to the narrow category of racial, religious and sexual epithets.
The Court cited several examples that it claimed were examples of viewpoint discrimination: the refusal to register 2 DYKE MINIMUM and registration of DYKES ON BIKES; the refusal to register SLANT and the registration of CELEBRASIANS and ASIAN EFFICIENCY, and the refusal to register STOP THE ISLAMISATION OF AMERICA and the registration of THINK ISLAM. However, DYKES ON BIKES was registered (after refusal by the USPTO and reconsideration in the TTAB) because the applicant was able to present evidence that the lesbian community did not consider DYKES to be disparaging, and also because the USPTO’s own evidence merely suggested that it “might” be disparaging. The comparison between SLANT and CELEBRASIONS or ASIAN EFFICIENCY also falls short: this is a comparison between a mark consisting of a pejorative term and two marks that contain no pejorative terms. Viewpoint discrimination, however, was apparently determinative in refusing to register STOP THE ISLAMISATION OF AMERICA. In refusing to register the latter mark, the TTAB “explained that the ‘mark’s admonition to ‘STOP’ Islamisation in America ‘sets a negative tone and signals that Islamization is undesirable and is something that must be brought to an end in America.’” That decision, the Court found, was a moral judgment “based solely and indisputably on the mark’s expressive content.”
Common Law Trademark Rights are Insufficient and Discourage Free Expression
The government attempted to counter this argument on three grounds. First, that Section 2(a) doesn’t prohibit free speech, “but leaves Mr. Tam free to name his band as he wishes and use this name in commerce;” second, that trademark registration constitutes a kind of government speech; and third, that trademark registration is a government subsidy, which (if true) the government may have the right to withhold.
With respect to the first argument, while it is true that Mr. Tam can continue to use his band name, it is not true that he can do so “as he wishes.” As the Court rightly found, Section 2(a) registration “bestows truly significant and financially valuable benefits upon markholders,” citing B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Industries, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 1293, 1300 (2015); Park ’N Fly, Inc. v. Dollar Park & Fly, Inc., 469 U.S. 189, 199–200 (1985) (valuable new rights were created by the Lanham Act); and McCarthy on Trademarks at § 19:9, :11 (“Registration of a mark on the federal Principal Register confers a number of procedural and substantive legal advantages over reliance on common law rights.”)
As examples of the rights that registration bestows upon the registrant, the Court cited the exclusive nationwide right to use the mark anywhere there is not already a prior user that precedes registration. (15 U.S.C. §§ 1072, 1115). By contrast, marks protected by common law rights are “limited to the territory in which the mark is known and recognized by those in the defined group of potential customers,” citing McCarthy on Trademarks at § 26:2. Without a federal trademark registration, a competitor can swoop in and adopt the same mark for the same goods in a different location. Non-registrants also have no prima facie evidence of their trademark’s validity, ownership and exclusive use. (See 15 U.S.C. § 1057(b)). Federal marks become incontestable after five years; common law trademarks never become incontestable. Finally, a common law trademark owner cannot stop importation of goods bearing its mark, or recover treble damages for willful infringement. (See 15 U.S.C. §§ 1117, 1124.) Nor can the common law trademark owner prevent “cybersquatters” from misappropriating its mark in a domain name. (See 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d).)
Given the limited protection that common law marks receive, if a group fears that a mark might be deemed offensive or disparaging by the USPTO, it will be less likely to adopt the mark, at least in part because the group may not be able to establish exclusive nationwide ownership. There is also a disincentive to choose a mark that might be deemed offensive or disparaging because litigating to obtain registration can be expensive and futile. (The USPTO does not give refunds for applications that are refused.)
Furthermore, the Court pointed out, “the disincentive does not stop there, because the disparagement determination is not a onetime matter. Even if an applicant obtains a registration initially, the mark may be challenged in a cancellation proceeding years later. Thus, after years of investment in promoting a registered mark and coming to be known by it, a mark’s owner may have to (re)litigate its character under § 2(a) and might lose the registration.”
Although the Court didn’t squarely address the subject, common law rights in a band name offers the band no real protection at all. It is fairly commonplace in the music industry for start-up bands inadvertently to adopt the same or a similar name as another band in some other city. Consider two bands with the same name, one popular in and around New York City, the other hailing from Austin, Texas, and popular in the Southwest. Each band is able to co-exist within its respective geographic area. But if one signs with a nationally distributed record company, or even begins releasing records that receive national distribution, it can be hit by a trademark infringement claim from the other. Typically what happens is that the more successful band ends up changing its name. (To give a famous example, one of two bands called Hybrid Theory was forced to change its name in order to avoid a trademark dispute. The band members chose Linkin Park as their new name, probably a fortuitous result.) The problem can also have international implications. The U.S. applicant who is refused registration in the USPTO will face registration difficulties, resulting in many thousands of dollars in legal fees, where it also filed trademark applications internationally, either under the Madrid Protocol or via direct country filings, using the U.S. application as the filing basis, as is ordinarily the case.
In short, a denial of registration is tantamount to punishment, with an added effect of inhibiting people from engaging in potentially disparaging speech in the first place.
Trademark Registration is Not Government Speech
The government’s second argument — that trademark registration is government speech — is specious. As the Court pointed out, trademark registration is, like copyright registration, a regulatory activity that does not involve either approval or endorsement by the U.S. government. One cannot distinguish between trademark from copyright registration on the basis that trademark is “commercial speech” (and thus subject to greater regulation) because advertising and other utterances by businesses are protectable by copyright regardless of their viewpoint. As the Court pointed out,
[T]he logical extension of the government’s argument is that these indicia of registration convert the underlying speech into government speech unprotected by the First Amendment. Thus, the government would be free, under this logic, to prohibit the copyright registration of any work deemed immoral, scandalous, or disparaging to others.
The government cited Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, 135 S. Ct. 2239 (2015) to support its contention that trademark registration is government speech, but the facts of that case are easily distinguishable. There, the Supreme Court found specialty license plates to be government speech, even though state law permitted individuals and organizations to request their own expressions, because “[t]he history of license plates shows that, insofar as license plates have conveyed more than state names and vehicle identification numbers, they long have communicated messages from the States.” (Examples include “Live Free or Die,” “The Show Me State,” and “Land of Opportunity.”) Furthermore, the Supreme Court observed that the State of Texas “places the name ‘TEXAS’ in large letters at the top of every plate,” designs the license plates, and requires vehicle owners to display them. As a consequence, the Supreme Court reasoned, “Texas license plate designs ‘are often closely identified in the public mind with the State.’” In addition, the Supreme Court found that “a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message.”
No one seriously views trademark registration as speech by the government endorsing or approving the mark or the goods and services thereunder. Anyone who did would have to explain why the government was endorsing these registered marks: RADICALLY FOLLOWING CHRIST IN MISSION TOGETHER (4759522); THINK ISLAM (4719002); GANJA UNIVERSITY (4070160); CAPITALISM SUCKS DONKEY BALLS (4744351); TAKE YO PANTIES OFF (4824028); and MURDER 4 HIRE (3605862). (The Federal Circuit named just a few but examples are legion.) Furthermore, as the government stated in its brief, “the USPTO does not endorse any particular product, service, mark, or registrant” when it registers a mark, and “just as the issuance of a trademark registration by this Office does not amount to government endorsement of the quality of the goods to which the mark is applied, the act of registration is not a government imprimatur or pronouncement that the mark is a ‘good’ one in an aesthetic, or any analogous, sense.”
Trademark Registration is not a Government Subsidy
The government contended that “trademark registration is a form of government subsidy that the government may refuse where it disapproves of the message a mark conveys.” However, the benefits of trademark registration are not monetary: trademark registration does not involve government funding or a concession to use or benefit from government property. That the USPTO is partially funded by appropriations does not make it a subsidy. Moreover, since 1991, all of the USPTO’s operating expenses associated with registering marks “have been funded entirely by registration fees, not the taxpayer.” The fact that some federal funds are spent on PTO employee benefits such as pensions, health insurance, and life insurance, is not enough to make it a subsidy. Nor is the benefit of being able to seek enforcement of a trademark by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The analogy, the Court persuasively argued, is again copyright:
Under the logic of the government’s approach, it follows that the government could refuse to register copyrights without the oversight of the First Amendment. Congress could pass a law prohibiting the copyrighting of works containing “racial slurs,” “religious insults,” “ethnic caricatures,” and “misogynistic images.”
As a Regulation Aimed at Commercial Speech, Section 2(a) is Unconstitutional
The government’s main objection to the Court’s trademark-copyright analogy is that § 2(a) is intended to regulate commercial speech. However, the regulation of commercial speech is only permissible where the government has some compelling interest (e.g., to prevent misleading claims about a product or service) and the statute has been “narrowly tailored to achieve that objective.” Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly, 533 U.S. 525, 555–56 (2001). “Under a commercial speech inquiry, it is the State’s burden to justify its content-based law as consistent with the First Amendment,” said the Federal Circuit, citing Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 131 S. Ct. 2653, 2667 (2011).
On its face, the Court found, Section 2(a) “does not address misleading, deceptive, or unlawful marks. There is nothing illegal or misleading about a disparaging trademark like Mr. Tam’s mark.” Indeed, the government’s entire interest in § 2(a) appears to be the denial of registration to trademarks whose messages the government disapproves.
Whether or not the Supreme Court lets the Federal Circuit’s decision stand, the Federal Circuit’s view that Mr. Tam was unjustly refused registration is compelling:
[I]t seems clear that the result as to Mr. Tam this case exemplifies how marks often have an expressive aspect over and above their commercial-speech aspect. Mr. Tam explicitly selected his mark to create a dialogue on controversial political and social issues. With his band name, Mr. Tam makes a statement about racial and ethnic identity. He seeks to shift the meaning of, and thereby reclaim, an emotionally charged word. He advocates for social change and challenges perceptions of people of Asian descent. His band name pushes people. It offends. Despite this—indeed, because of it—Mr. Tam’s band name is expressive speech.
On the other hand, if Mr. Tam can now register SLANTS for a salutary purpose, there is no constitutional justification that would prohibit an organization to register the same word for a racist purpose, for example, “No Slants Allowed.” Nor would there be a constitutional justification for preventing registration of REDSKINS for a football team. (The owner of the REDSKINS trademark certainly claims not to have disparaging intent.) It seems to us that Congress could narrowly prohibit the registration of racial, religious and gender-based epithets that disparage “a substantial composite of the referenced group” on a viewpoint-neutral basis (i.e., regardless of the trademark applicant’s purpose in using the epithet), but Section 2(a) reaches too far when it prohibits disparaging messages whose words, standing alone, are not inherently disparaging. Of course, whether Congress should pass a law prohibiting the registration of epithets is another matter. The marketplace of ideas may be the best way to determine the worth of any mark.
The fight over Section 2(a) is far from over. The case is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court and, of course, Congress may look for a legislative solution, leading to further litigation. In addition, the Federal Circuit limited its holding to the disparagement provision of Section 2(a), “[r]ecognizing, however, that other portions of § 2 may likewise constitute government regulation of expression based on message, such as the exclusions of immoral or scandalous marks…”
 Section 2(a) provides in full as follows:
No trademark by which the goods of the applicant may be distinguished from the goods of others shall be refused registration on the principal register on account of its nature unless it —
(a) Consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute; or a geographical indication which, when used on or in connection with wines or spirits, identifies a place other than the origin of the goods and is first used on or in connection with wines or spirits by the applicant on or after one year after the date on which the WTO Agreement (as defined in section 3501(9) of title 19) enters into force with respect to the United States.
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