Can a band register their name, “The Slants,” as a mark? Is that name disparaging to Asian-Americans and so barred from registration under the Lanham Act, 15 USC 1052(a)? Can the football team that plays in Washington maintain its registrations for its “Redskins” marks?
During the oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court on January 18, 2017, the “Redskins” marks were not directly in issue, but there is no doubt that what the Court decides in Lee v. Tam will decide the validity of the “Redskins” registrations, as well as the registrability of “The Slants”.
The oral argument addressed all the key points that have been debated since the Trademark Office first addressed the merits of the “Redskins” and “Slants” cases.
On the one point of most concern to the trademark bar – the overuse of marks potentially considered to be disparaging, the Justices seemed clear that the denial of registration would not preclude enforcement of rights in registered (and potentially unregistered) disparaging marks.
The central question before the Court is whether denying registration implicates the First Amendment if the denial does not burden, restrict or prohibit the use of the subject marks, although the denial precludes reliance on the benefits of registration, which are substantive as well as procedural, and include incontestability barring certain defenses, recordation with Customs to stop infringing imports, statutory damages against counterfeits.
What is notable are the number and variety of the amicus briefs filed. In support of Tam, amicus briefs were filed by: law professors and lecturers such as Floyd Abrams (Yale and Columbia), Eric Freedman (Hofstra), Nadine Strossen (New York Law), and William Van Alstyne (William and Mary); Pacific Legal Foundation; American Center for Law and Justice; Chamber of Commerce. There were amicus briefs filed on behalf of neither party by the American Bar Association and Public Knowledge, and on behalf of a number of members of Congress. And amicus briefs filed on behalf of the petitioner included: the Hispanic National Bar Association, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, National LGBT Bar Association, National Native American Bar Association and a number of law professors.
The oral argument provided no clear answer as to what the ruling will be. Numerous analogies to copyright law were drawn by Justices Kennedy, Alito and Ginsburg. Numerous questions were posed about the purpose and function of trademarks by Justices Roberts, Stewart and Breyer. The most torturous component of the argument revolved around the distinction that might be drawn between the commercial and the expressive components of a trademark, with John Connell on behalf of Tam submitting that the trademark serves both functions, with the non-commercial component of his client’s mark communicating Asian pride. Tam himself has been quoted as saying: “We’re fighting for more than a band name; we’re fighting for the right of self-determination for all minorities.”
It is interesting that in such a submission, neither “The Slants” nor the “Redskins” cases offer competent survey evidence to address whether or not the population alleged to be disparaged by the mark in question finds the mark in fact to be disparaging. Justice Stewart noted that the director of the USPTO was relying on internet commentary to support the finding of disparagement. The question is whether such important determinations should be based on such flimsy evidence. And this same concern applies equally to the prohibition on registration of scandalous and immoral marks, a separate provision of 15 USC 1052(a), which was remarked on more than once by Justice Ginsburg. The USPTO has taken the position that if there is a dictionary that identifies the term as “vulgar” (a word that does not appear in the statute), that term is precluded from registration. If the bar to registration of disparaging marks falls, there can be little doubt that the bar to registration of “immoral” marks also falls.
And then the question must also be raised that if disparagement is not a bar to registration, can it be a basis for precluding the use of a mark, such as when a mark is alleged to cause a likelihood of dilution by tarnishment? How the Lee v. Tam matter is decided, and the breadth of the language employed, will clearly have an impact on more than the question of registration of “The Slants” and ‘Redskins” marks. It should also resolve the uncertainty over the impact of a finding of incapability of registration on the ability to enforce trademark rights under the provision protecting unregistered marks and names from infringement, 15 USC 1125(a).