Trademark Trial and Appeal Board

Well, a lot has happened since we last reported on the District Court’s decision in the FLANAX trademark dispute.  As you may recall, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board granted Bayer’s Petition and cancelled the FLANAX registration although Bayer, a German company, did not use the mark FLANAX in the US. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed Bayer’s  subsequent Complaint and reversed the TTAB, finding that Bayer had no standing to challenge the FLANAX mark under the Lanham Act since it had no rights in the mark in the US. Bayer appealed this to the Fourth Circuit which then reversed the District Court. The Fourth Circuit concluded that Bayer did have the right under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act to assert claims for false association and false advertising and to pursue a cancellation claim under Section 14(3). The Court held that nothing in the Lanham Act or the law mandated that Bayer have used the FLANAX mark in the US “as a condition precedent” to its claims. On October 20, 2016, Belmora, the owner of the US trademark registration for FLANAX, filed with the U.S. Supreme Court a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari seeking resolution of a  split among the circuit courts on the application of territorial provisions to certain trademark claims in the US. The specific question presented to the Court by Belmora is as follows:

“Whether Sections 14(3) and 43(a) of the Lanham Act allow a foreign business that has neither used nor registered its trademark in the United States to sue the owner of a U.S. trademark for conduct relating to the owner’s use of its U.S. mark.”

Bayer can file a brief in opposition within 30 days if it decides to do so.

We will keep you posted on all further developments.


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.

Written by: Susan Neuberger Weller

The Washington Redskins professional football team will soon not only be battling Native Americans over the registrability of the REDSKINS trademark, but will also have to cross swords with the US Government. Last week, the US Department of Justice filed a Notice of Intervention in the appeal of the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s decision last summer to cancel the REDSKINS trademark registrations. As we reported in our earlier post, the Washington team raised in its appeal constitutional issues that could not be decided by the TTAB. These include the following:

  • Trademarks are constitutionally protected commercial speech and Section 2(a)’s provisions prohibiting the registration of “disparaging, “”contempt[uous]”, or “disreput[able]” aspects of a mark are  an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on speech that violates the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
  • Section 2(a) is facially overbroad and  unconstitutionally void for vagueness in violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution since, inter alia, the terms “disparage,” “may disparage,” “contempt,” “disrepute,” and “may bring…into contempt or  disrepute” are not defined in the Lanham Act or its legislative history.
  • The cancellation of the REDSKINS registrations violate  the team’s due process rights provided by the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution by unreasonably depriving the team of federally granted property rights that it has relied on for almost half a century.
  • The Board’s Order canceling the REDSKINS trademark registrations is an unconstitutional taking of Pro-Football’s property without just compensation in violation of the Takings Clause of the Fifth  Amendment to the US Constitution.

The Notice of Intervention states that the US Government will be defending the constitutionality of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, and is entitled to do so as a matter of right pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and statute.

As of this writing, no responsive pleadings have yet been filed by either the team or the Native Americans. Stay tuned.

Written by: Susan Neuberger Weller

The Washington Redskins trademark controversy is far from over. Despite the fact that certain news and sports commentators and mainstream newspapers and organizations have announced that they will no longer use the term “Redskins” when reporting on the National League football team, and the fact that a variety of public figures, including President Obama, have expressed an opinion that the name should be changed, team owner Dan Snyder continues to steadfastly defend the name as expressing only “honor and respect” and state that he has no intention of ever changing it. In support of that promise, the team has appealed the cancellation of its US trademark registrations by the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board which held in a split 2-1 decision that the REDSKINS trademark was disparaging to Native Americans and, therefore, no longer eligible for continued registration. Continue Reading Washington Redskins Challenge the Constitutionality of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act

Written by: Susan Neuberger Weller

The overwhelming public reaction to the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s June 18 decision canceling six REDSKINS trademark registrations on grounds that the mark disparaged Native Americans has been impressive. However, news articles, op-ed pieces, informal commentary, and anecdotal stories all evidence wide range confusion about and a misunderstanding of the meaning and impact of the decision.  This is an effort to set the record straight on the legal effect of this decision.

  1. The Washington Redskins still own valid and enforceable federal trademark rights in the REDSKINS marks. The federal registrations will not be formally canceled until all appeals have been exhausted, which will take years given the fact that the Redskins have indicated an intent to appeal the decision.
  2. Unlike most other countries in the world, US trademark law recognizes fully valid and enforceable trademark rights at common-law in trademarks that are being used but which are not registered. Thus, even if the registrations are eventually canceled, the Redskins will continue to own common-law rights in the trademarks which can be fully enforced in state and federal courts against third-party infringers.
  3. While the trademarks are still registered, the federal trademark registration notice ® may be used in connection with the REDSKINS marks. If these registrations are eventually canceled at the end of the legal process, the team can continue to use the REDSKINS marks and can use the unregistered trademark notice ™ with the marks.
  4. Anyone who thinks the Washington REDSKINS trademark is now up for grabs and can be used without incident is sorely mistaken, and anyone who has already begun to make unauthorized use of any of the REDSKINS marks is just asking for trouble. Should it choose to do so, the Redskins can still bring suit for infringement throughout the country.
  5. This decision is not based on a new law or any new Federal Government action, power, position, or initiative. The Section of the Trademark Act upon which the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board based its decision has been in existence and has been applied since 1946. The  US Trademark Office, the Board, and courts around the country have regularly and for years refused to register trademarks and have canceled existing trademark registrations which were determined to be immoral, deceptive, scandalous, disparaging, or which brought persons, living or dead, into contempt or disrepute. The list of such marks is quite lengthy.
  6. Moreover, this is not a new case. These disparagement claims have been around for decades. This the second time that the Board has canceled these REDSKINS registrations on grounds of being disparaging to Native Americans. The first case, which was initially brought in 1992 and which was not litigated to a conclusion until 2010, was finally dismissed on grounds that had nothing to do with the disparagement issue. Rather, the case was dismissed on grounds of laches, which means that the specific Native Americans who filed the first case waited too long to do so and that delay prevented the case from moving forward.
  7. Until the registrations are formally canceled, which will be years from now if appeals are pursued, the REDSKINS trademark registrations will continue to be recorded with US Customs. This means that any unauthorized merchandise bearing a REDSKINS trademark which attempts to enter the country is still subject to seizure at the border by US Customs.

So, the Washington Redskins’ trademark rights are not dead and the REDSKINS trademark saga is far from over. Stay tuned.

Written By: Susan Neuberger Weller

A three-judge panel of the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), for the second time and in a 2-1 decision, has held that the REDSKINS trademark used in connection with professional football and related services by the Washington Redskins National Football League team was disparaging to a substantial composite of Native Americans between 1967-1990, the time during which the registrations issued. It also held that the defense of laches did not apply to a disparagement claim where the disparagement pertains to a group of which the individual plaintiff or plaintiffs comprise one or more members. Accordingly, it ordered the registrations at issue canceled as violations of Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act. The cancellation of the registrations has no effect on the team’s ability to continue to use the REDSKINS marks.

Continue Reading “REDSKINS” US Trademark Registrations are Canceled for Disparaging Native Americans

Written by: Susan Neuberger Weller

Recently, there was an interesting article in the The New York Times discussing the current state of military trademarks. Many people might think that federal and state government entities and agencies cannot, do not, or should not own exclusive rights in trademarks used in connection with commercialized products and services. However, unless there is a statutory prohibition against ownership of trademark rights in government insignia  (as there are for certain government seals ), government entities have just as much right to own trademarks as does any private citizen. Continue Reading OOHRAH! A Few Good Trademarks: The U.S. Military’s Trademark Campaign

Written by: Susan Neuberger Weller

The City of Houston, Texas has filed a Petition For Writ Of Certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States asking the Court to interpret Section 2(b) of the Lanham Act to determine whether it prohibits a government entity from federally registering its own flag or coat of arms or other insignia as a mark with the US Patent and Trademark Office.  The City of Houston v. Acting Director, U. S. Patent and Trademark Office, 13-784 (S.Ct. December 30, 2013). As was noted in our previous post on emoticons, US trademark law prohibits the registration of marks which fall into many different categories, including any mark which “consists of or comprises the flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any State or municipality, or of any foreign nation, or any simulation thereof.”  The original Examining Attorney for Houston’s application for registration, and the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board and the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in subsequent appeals, all agreed that the “plain meaning” of the statutory language prohibited such registration. Does this make sense?

Continue Reading Houston, We Have a Problem: City Petitions the US Supreme Court to Register Its Official Seal as a Trademark

Written by: Susan Neuberger Weller

For many years now, the US Trademark Office has accepted trademark applications based upon a “bona fide intent to use” the applied-for mark on all the goods and/or to provide all of the services listed in the application at the time of filing.  Unlike in many other countries, a US application based on “intent to use” will not mature to registration until proof of use of the mark on all the goods and to provide all the services in the application has been filed with and accepted by the Trademark Office. The legislative history behind these statutory requirements makes clear that Congress wanted to prevent the warehousing of marks that no one had any real plans to use.

When an application is filed, the applicant must have an authorized representative sign, under penalty of criminal perjury, a declaration attesting to the fact that it has a “bona fide” intent to use the mark. The Trademark Office does not require proof of this intent at any point during the prosecution of the application. However, an application can be opposed by a third party with standing to do so on grounds that there was no “bona fide” intent to use the mark at the time the application was filed, rendering the application void. This is precisely what PRL USA Holdings, owner of the RALPH LAUREN POLO marks, did successfully in opposing two applications owned by Rich C. Young to register marks which PRL believed were confusingly similar to marks the company owned.

In these non-precedential opinions, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board made clear that the “bona fide intent” required under the Trademark Act “must reflect an intention that is firm, though it may be contingent on the outcome of an event (that is, market research or product testing).”  Citing to prior case law, Section 45 of the Trademark Act, and the Senate Judiciary Committee Report for the relevant statutory provisions, the Board stated that there must be an intention to use the mark “in the ordinary course of trade” and not “merely to reserve a right in the mark.” Such an objective determination to be is made based upon all of the circumstances of each individual case.

The Board stated that one way of proving a lack of a bona fide intent is to demonstrate that an applicant has no documentary evidence, such as business plans, marketing or promotional activities, or evidence of discussions with manufacturers or licensees, to substantiate its allegations of intent.  Applicant Young’s responded to PRL’s discovery requests for evidence of activities involving the mark, that he was “in an intention to use status,” “did not have any business planning yet,” and  “did not have business activities yet.” In noting that it had “repeatedly found a lack of bona fide intent to use a mark by individuals who lack the demonstrated capacity to produce the goods identified in the application,” the Board held that the evidence in the cases demonstrated that Applicant only intended to “reserve a right in the mark” in case it was later approved for registration by the Trademark Office and that Applicant Young would only “at some unspecified future time begin developing a business.” Thus, PRL’s oppositions were sustained and both applications were refused registration.

So what is the take away here? First, coming up with a clever mark for a product or service that does not yet exist in any form other than in the imagination of an individual is not a proper candidate for an intent to use application. Thus, all applicants and their attorneys should ensure that there has been some demonstrated business efforts involving a mark before filing an application. For those applicants who might intend to use the mark only through a licensee, there should be some evidence to support this claim. Although the lack of intent will only surface if an application is challenged by a third party, the opposer need not have grounds to allege a lack of bona fide intent at the time the opposition is filed if it can, as PRL did, amend its application after discovery has uncovered no evidence to support claimed intent. Moreover, applications filed under Section 44 based upon a foreign registration are not immune from these requirements since all such applicants must also allege and declare under penalty of criminal perjury a bona fide intent to use the applied-for mark in US commerce despite the fact that proof of use need not be filed in order for the registration to issue.

Accordingly, although dreams can come true, be sure that clever ideas for a mark are backed up by evidence of plans to use the mark before filing an application.