#156: A New Slant on Offensive Trademarks

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #156, on the subject of A New Slant on Offensive Trademarks.

Anyone following the Redskins trademark dispute will be interested to know that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that is going to impact that–not the Redskins case itself, but a case close enough in its content that a Virginia federal appeals court has put the Redskins case on hold pending the outcome of the present case.

The case, Lee v. Tam, involves an American rock band whose members are all Asian, who want to trademark their band’s name, The Slants.  The U. S. Patent and Trademark Office refused to register the name on the grounds that it was disparaging of Asian Americans.  However, the Federal Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit overturned that decision, stating that it was an unconstitutional impingement on free speech, concluding that the provision under trademark law forbidding such protection of any trademark which “[c]onsists of…matter which may disparage…persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute” is unconstitutional on its face.

The Patent and Trademark Office has appealed, and the Obama Justice Department has supported that appeal.

The Slants performing at the 2016 Saboten Con at the Sheraton Grand Phoenix in Phoenix, Arizona, photo by Gage Skidmore.
The Slants performing at the 2016 Saboten Con at the Sheraton Grand Phoenix in Phoenix, Arizona, photo by Gage Skidmore.

Simon Shiao Tam, founder of the band, argues that they took the name as a way of embracing their Asian heritage, and that it neither offends those Asian Americans who are their fans nor is intended to do so.  He also points out that “slants”, while popularly used as a racial slur, has other non-racial meanings (unlike “Redskins”, “Nigger“, and similar epithets).  Still, the question isn’t whether the word can be used in an inoffensive manner, but whether the government can deny a trademark on the grounds that some might take it to be offensive.

One of the arguments raised by the government is that the State of Texas won a decision that they did not have to permit a personalized license plate design which included the Confederate Flag.  There, however, the argument was that since the plate is an official government document issuing such plates would be as if the government were endorsing the use of that flag.  It is, perhaps, a weak argument–the government cannot legally be endorsing all the organizations which apply for such plate designs, many of whom have political or religious connections–but it is weaker applied to trademarks, as the Office has repeatedly asserted that the issuance of a trademark does not indicate endorsement of what it represents.

Against the government, enforcement of the rule has been uneven.  Numerous trademarks have been issued that include racial epithets or other offensive language.  If the government wins, many of those might have to be rescinded, and might end up in litigation.

Against The Slants, there is at least some reason for enforcement of a rule against offensive trademarks.  A broad decision here could open the door to a wealth of product names far more offensive to far more groups.  A narrow decision would probably have to take the line that whether the trademark is offensive must be determined in the context of whether the audience would perceive it so.  The slogan “Bring your bitch here” is probably not offensive if it is used by a groomer or veterinary clinic, but would be so at the entrance to a bar.  However, the harder case would be whether accommodations near the Westminster Kennel Club dog show could use that slogan to let breeders and trainers know that their animals are welcome in the rooms or dining areas.  Yet the court might here find that context matters and still rule against The Slants, since the question would be whether “slants” is an offensive Asian epithet and they are an all-Asian band.

Ultimately, though, as Ray Bradbury reminded us half a century ago, everything worth writing is offensive to someone.  Any effort to censor free expression in trademarks is doomed to failure, because the issue of what is and is not offensive is too subjective to legislate.

I am inclined to think that people who register and use offensive trademarks in order to be offensive will alienate potential customers and pay an economic penalty for it.  That should be a sufficient disincentive to the practice.  Otherwise, our high courts will spend a tremendous amount of time reviewing lawsuits over whether individual trademark applications are or are not too offensive under whatever standard is adopted.

3 thoughts on “#156: A New Slant on Offensive Trademarks”

  1. The USPTO regulation regarding offensive material is wholly specious and largely irrelevant.

    Trademarks, much like copyright, can be claimed simply by affixing “tm” to a term or logo. Registration of a trademark, like that of a copyright, gains additional protections if it is registered, and gains the “(r) (circled r) denotation. However, to register a trademark you have to show that it is used in commerce. Further there are renewal periods (7 or 10 years) for which you have to show continued use in commerce.

    Consequently the market decides what is offensive and what is not. Should anyone have a trademark that is offensive enough to drive away business they will eventually go out of business and thus be no longer able to show use of that mark in commerce. The issue is largely self correcting.

    1. Ordinarily I would agree–but the Redskins stand to lose millions in licensing costs on merchandising if the PTO decision against them stands, and what the Court decides in this case is going to have serious ramifications for that one.

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