The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will review whether the U.S. Trademark Office can deny registration of offensive trademarks or whether such prohibition violates the First Amendment. The dispute affects the constitutionality of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which prohibits registration of such marks. The case originated in 2013 following the Office’s refusal to register THE SLANTS as a mark for an Oregon rock band on grounds that it was a derogatory slang phrase for people of Asian descent Continue Reading The SLANTS Trademark Will Play One More Gig: U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Constitutionality of Ban on Disparaging Trademarks
The October 2016 issue of Financier Worldwide features our article discussing the ITC’s general exclusion order procedure and how it impacts fighting counterfeit goods. Though the US International Trade Commission (ITC) is most often thought of in terms of high stakes patent litigation, the issuance of a general exclusion order (GEO) by the ITC has always been a powerful tool for intellectual property owners to fight counterfeits and knockoffs. Word of the benefits of obtaining a GEO seems to have spread as in recent years the numbers of these orders, and the parties seeking them, have been increasing rapidly.
Companies seeking to stop a tide of imported knockoffs often find themselves playing legal whack-a-mole – they spend a great deal of money and time filing repeated cases in the US district courts against the sellers they can identify, but after it all find that the orders they worked so hard to obtain are difficult to enforce against small overseas companies which simply cease their official operations then re-emerge having changed their names, locations or channel of importation.
To read the entire article, please click here.
My colleagues at the Global IP Matters blog highlight today the decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which provides clarification of what the courts consider a “trade secret” under the new Defense of Trade Secrets Act (DTSA). The decision, handed down on July 5, indicates clearly that a compilation of publicly-available information gathered using propriety search technology is covered under the DTSA. The DTSA amended the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) to create a federal private civil cause of action for trade secret misappropriation. The 9th Circuit’s decision can be accessed here and my colleague’s insights into what it means may be accessed here.
Trademark dilution is a concept not easily understood. Although, we have written about this topic in previous posts, a recent decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, ESRT Empire State Building, L. L. C. v. Michael Liang, Opposition No. 91204122 (TTAB June 17, 2016), may help to further explain why it is unacceptable to dilute another’s trademark.
The US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has, again, explained how and when surnames may function as trademarks. In re Enumclaw Farms LLC, Application Serial No. 85942195 (TTAB June 24, 2016). This blog has discussed this topic in the past, but the facts in this most recent case are worth another post.
The Federal Circuit has upheld the findings of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that use of the marks MAYA and MAYARI on wine is not likely to cause confusion. Oakville Hills Cellar, Inc. vs. Georgallis Holdings, LLC, Case No. 2016-1103 (Fed. Cir. June 24, 2016). The court concluded that there was substantial evidence to support the Board’s finding that the marks were sufficiently dissimilar in appearance, sound, meaning and commercial impression to avoid likely confusion, despite the fact that they were used on virtually identical products which would be sold to similar customers in similar channels of trade. Continue Reading MAYA And MAYARI Are Not Confusingly Similar When Used On Wine
As we reported in a recent post, PETA lost its efforts, on behalf of Naruto the monkey, to secure his claim to copyright ownership of his “selfie” photograph. The district court judge held that the copyright law did not recognize an animal’s right to own a copyright. PETA is not, however, deterred, and it has filed an appeal of this decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Its arguments on appeal are not yet available, but we will update this post when we have further details. Stay tuned.
In August 2014, we posted about a copyright ownership dispute involving selfie photographs. The disputed selfie photographs were taken by a monkey named Naruto in Indonesia in 2011. The photography equipment used to take these internationally famous “monkey selfies” belonged to famed wildlife photographer David Slater. At the time, Slater claimed copyright ownership because he owned the camera with which the “monkey selfies” were taken. In contrast, Wikimedia, having posted the photographs on Wikipedia, claimed the photographs were part of the public domain because U.S. copyright law recognized ownership of copyright in works produced only by human authorship.
In December 2014, the U.S. Copyright Office published a revised edition of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, a resource on institutional practices and related principles of U.S. copyright law. In it, it states “the Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants… [or] a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings.” The Compendium includes specific examples of work not eligible for copyright protection. The first example: a photograph taken by a monkey.
In September 2015, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. (“PETA”) filed a copyright infringement complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against Slater, on behalf of Naruto, asking the court to declare Naruto to be the author and copyright owner of the “monkey selfies” and to hold that all proceeds from the sale, licensing, and commercial use be used solely for the benefit of Naruto. PETA contended that since the photo(s) “resulted from a series of purposeful and voluntary actions by Naruto, unaided by Slater,” Naruto was the author. PETA noted the author is typically “the person who sets up and snaps the shutter,” to which Slater’s attorneys responded that “setting up what became a world-famous, award-winning photograph is what professional nature photographer Defendant David Slater did.”
On January 28, 2016, following U.S District Judge William Orrick’s bench ruling earlier in the month, Judge Orrick issued a written Order granted defendants’ motion to dismiss. Citing to earlier precedent, the court noted that if Congress and the President intended to authorize animals to have standing to sue, they had the power to do so and, thus far, they had not done so. Accordingly, Judge Orrick held that under the current Copyright Act and consistent with the Compendium, animals cannot own a copyright and therefore Naruto is not an “author” within the meaning of the Copyright Act.
Whether U.S. law will ever be changed to allow copyright ownership by non-human “authors” of any type remains to be seen.
What do Washington D.C.’s NFL team, the Redskins, and Mr. Tam’s rock band, The Slants, have in common? Both have enjoyed unexpected victories recently and both have been called “disparaging” by the Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”). However, while the Washington Redskins have been winning on the football field, many legal and business news websites have also been counting Mr. Tam’s recent success at the Federal Circuit as a major win for the football team. In reality, that issue is far from settled.
The Federal Circuit first took up the issue of Mr. Tam’s trademark last spring when it affirmed the PTO’s rejection of his application to register the mark “THE SLANTS,” the name of Mr. Tam’s Asian-American dance rock band that is known for its intentional use of Asian stereotypes in its lyrics and imagery in order to weigh in on cultural and political discussions about race and society. Despite the ruling adverse to Mr. Tam, Judge Moore went on to write a lengthy argument addressing the need for a deeper constitutional review of the statutory prohibition against disparaging marks, as codified in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. In re Tam, 785 F.3d 567 (Fed. Cir. 2015). This opinion teed up the en banc review by the Federal Circuit, which issued a pivotal opinion on December 22, 2015 overruling prior precedent, In re McGinley, 660 F.2d 481 (C.C.P.A. 1981), and held that the prohibition against registering disparaging marks at the PTO under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. In re Simon Shiao Tam, No. 2014-1203, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 22300 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 22, 2015).
Based on the Federal Circuit’s ruling, the media immediately decreed victory for the Washington Redskins’ trademark battle, but there are reasons that the recent Federal Circuit ruling is not likely to be the last we hear of this issue:
First, the Federal Circuit is split. While 9 judges agree that the disparaging marks prohibition in Section 2(a) is entirely unconstitutional, the remaining 3 raise some valid concerns in partial or total disagreement. For example, writing for the Majority, Judge Moore places a great deal of importance on the chilling effect such regulation has on expressive speech. However, Judge Reyna and Judge Laurie argue in dissent that the Majority’s analysis is flawed from the very beginning as trademark registration is commercial speech, as was held in precedential opinions, and thus not subject to heightened scrutiny. Meanwhile, Judge Dyk attempts to draw a distinction between “core political speech” and “commercial speech” in trademarks. In the concurrence in part and dissent in part, Judge Dyk argues that the Majority is correct only as to a narrow category of trademarks which contain core political speech, but the statute remains constitutional as to the bulk of trademarks which are merely commercial speech. This fundamental disagreement as to what is or is not commercial speech is exactly the sort of issue that the Supreme Court may take up. In the dissent, Judge Reyna poignantly summarizes the disagreement: “The Majority holds today that Mr. Tam’s speech, which disparages those of Asian descent, is valuable political speech that the government may not regulate except to ban its use in commerce by everyone but Mr. Tam.”
Second, the Redskins’ mark is pending review before a different tribunal. The Redskins are currently appealing to the Fourth Circuit an adverse ruling by a U.S. District Court following the TTAB’s cancellation of the team’s mark recently. In doing so, the TTAB cited the same prohibition against registering disparaging marks under Section 2(a) at issue in the recent Federal Circuit opinion. While the Federal Circuit’s opinion will surely be influential to the Fourth Circuit, it is not precedential and the Fourth Circuit is not required to follow it. Thus, immediate victory for the Redskins is not guaranteed. Furthermore, should the Fourth Circuit rule in any way different than the Federal Circuit on determining constitutionality of Section 2(a), this circuit split would set up a likely Supreme Court review.
Third, the constitutionality of Section 2(a) as to immoral and scandalous marks is now unclear. While the Majority was careful to mention several times that their opinion concerns only the prohibition against registering disparaging marks, Section 2(a) also prohibits registering immoral and scandalous marks. Indeed, the Redskins mark may still be challenged under either of those additional prohibitions at a future date. To some, the logic and reasoning of the recent Federal Circuit ruling may be equally applicable to those prohibitions; both additional prohibitions can be categorized as content based and/or viewpoint based regulation of non-commercial expressive speech that fails the constitutional test of strict scrutiny. To others, there may be reasons to distinguish the Federal Circuit’s ruling as to the other Section 2(a) prohibitions; the prohibition against registering immoral and scandalous marks isn’t as vague or the effect isn’t as chilling on expressive speech. The Supreme Court may be interested in settling this discrepancy before the PTO is flooded with new registrations of offensive marks.
Despite their recent wins on the field, the Redskins’ Super Bowl prospects are still uncertain. The prospects of the team’s trademark registration remains similarly uncertain, despite the recent Federal Circuit holding.
Today the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the section of the Lanham Act which bans registration of “disparaging” trademarks is an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment free speech.
The case, In re Simon Shiao Tam (case no. 14-1203), involved the U.S. Trademark Office’s refusal to register the mark THE SLANTS for a music band on grounds that it disparaged an ethnic group. In issuing its decision, the appeals court wrote that “[m]any of the marks rejected as disparaging convey hurtful speech that harms members of oft-stigmatized communities,” but that “the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech.” It went on to state that “[t]he government cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks.”
This decision could impact the case pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit involving the cancellation of the Washington Redskins trademark registrations on grounds of disparagement.
Stay tuned for further updates.