Two incredible things happened in 1992 for the NFL football team Washington Redskins. It won the Super Bowl and applied to register a trademark Washington Redskins. It has not been so lucky ever since. It has not won another Super Bowl and has not registered that mark since 1992. Now, thanks to the touchdown scored by the Supreme Court for Washington Redskins and its compadres The Slants band of Asian-American musicians in the Matal v. Tam case last term, the team just converted its 25-year old application into a US registration and is about to get its six presently-cancelled other US trademark registrations back. This is a natural fall out from the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the Lanham Act’s Section 2(a) prohibition against registering “disparag[ing]” trademarks as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. [See Mintz Levin’s prior post on the Matal decision.] This decision has now forced the hand of the Fourth Circuit to vacate and remand in an unpublished per curiam opinion the Washington Redskins’ appeal of the district court decision to uphold the PTO’s cancellation of its six trademark registrations as disparaging to Native Americans. [See Mintz Levin’s prior post on this saga.] The Supreme Court’s decision has left nothing to consider for the Fourth Circuit, the district court, and the PTO, which will now have to reinstate the presently cancelled trademark registrations.
Selecting and protecting your “brand” should begin from the very moment a business is in the process of being formed, whether that business is a sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, limited liability company, or some other type of entity. It makes no difference whether the entity is a for-profit or not-for-profit organization, and the size of the entity is also irrelevant. Your “brand” is your public facing identity by which you will be known and through which your reputation will be developed. The goodwill you develop in your “brand” will be one of the most important and valuable assets you own.
The first “brand” a new entity may adopt is its business name. This may be a formal corporate name obtained through a Secretary of State’s office and/or a fictitious business name, such as a trade name or a DBA. Regardless of which type of entity is adopting and using a new name, and regardless of whether the name has been cleared by a Secretary of State’s office, it is critical that an appropriate trademark search be conducted for the new name to ensure that it does not infringe upon the prior existing registered or unregistered trademark rights of a third party. Continue Reading Company “Branding” and the Benefits of Federal Trademark Registration
In a unanimous decision handed down on June 19th, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a long-standing prohibition against federal registration of “disparaging” trademarks, finding that the this provision of the Lanham Act violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
We have been tracking this case since 2013, when the TTAB refused registration of the mark THE SLANTS for an Oregon rock band. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the application under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act which prohibited the registration of marks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a). The PTO found the mark to be a derogatory or offensive term for people of Asian descent. The Federal Circuit reversed the PTO, finding the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act unconstitutional, and the government appealed. Continue Reading Matal v. Tam: U.S. Supreme Court Holds Prohibition on Disparaging Trademarks Unconstitutional under First Amendment
Although most people will recognize the ubiquitous PIZZA! PIZZA! slogan mark owned by the pizza chain Little Caesar’s, the company’s collection of repeated term marks does not rise to the level of a “family of marks” according to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. In a precedential decision, the Board held that to grant this status to the slogan marks at issue would give Little Caesar’s excessively broad rights not justified by the facts. In re LC Trademarks, Inc. (TTAB December 29, 2016). However, the Board did clarify that proof of the existence of a “family of marks” can be a factor used to prove that otherwise descriptive marks have acquired distinctiveness. Continue Reading Pizza! Pizza!: Little Caesar’s Repeated Term Slogans Are Not a “Family of Marks”
In a non-precedential opinion, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board cancelled two US trademark registrations for the mark PORTON, finding it to be confusingly similar to the mark PATRON. Patron Spirits International AG v. Pisco Porton, LLC, Cancellatio No. 92059527 (January 4, 2017). PORTON is the brand name for a Peruvian brandy sold by Pisco Porton. PATRON is the brand name for a Mexican tequila sold by Patron Spirits International. Continue Reading Trademark Trial and Appeal Board: Non-Spanish Speakers Would Confuse PATRON and PORTON Trademarks
Further to our post last Friday on the SLANTS trademark case, the U.S. Supreme Court today, without comment, refused the Redskins’ Petition to join the SLANTS case challenging the U.S. Trademark Office’s ban on “offensive” trademarks. Since both cases involved a provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the football team hoped to have both cases considered concurrently by the high Court. However, this now means that the outcome of the SLANTS case will have a huge impact on the Redskins’ appeal still pending before the Fourth Circuit. Although the team’s case will not be heard with the SLANTS case, it will have the opportunity to file amicus briefs in the proceeding.
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 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.
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.