As many long-time readers know, Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act is one of my pet peeves. This is the section of the Trademark Act that gives pretty much unfettered discretion to a trademark examiner to deny a trademark registration on the basis that the mark itself is “immoral” or “scandalous.” The Federal Circuit just decided In Re Fox, in which it reaffirmed some very bad law, and in which it lacked the integrity to address some Constitutional fictions upon which most 2(a) denials are based.
“[n]o trademark by which the goods of the applicant may be distinguished from the goods of others shall be refused registration on the principal register on account of its nature unless it (a) [c]onsists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter.” 15 U.S.C. § 1052.
One of the most absurd elements of a 2(a) denial is that the evidentiary standard is so open to abuse. An examiner may prove “immorality” or “scandalousness” by simply establishing that the mark is “vulgar.” In re Boulevard Entm’t, Inc., 334 F.3d 1336, 1340 (Fed. Cir. 2003). Essentially, if the examiner finds a single online dictionary or chat board where someone says “that’s vulgar,” then that is usually enough for the examiner, the TTAB, and the Federal Circuit.
So, another 2(a) denial is just a “ho hum” event. But, this portion of the opinion shows just how little respect the Federal Circuit has for Constitutional issues. I mean, come on guys, at least try and make it look like you didn’t just mail it in.
The prohibition on “immoral . . . or scandalous” trademarks was first codified in the 1905 revision of the trademark laws, see Act of Feb. 20, 1905, Pub. L. No. 58- 84, § 5(a), 33 Stat. 724, 725. This court and its predeces- sor have long assumed that the prohibition “is not an attempt to legislate morality, but, rather, a judgment by the Congress that [scandalous] marks not occupy the time, services, and use of funds of the federal government.” In re Mavety Media Grp. Ltd., 33 F.3d 1367, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (quotation marks omitted). Because a refusal to register a mark has no bearing on the applicant’s ability to use the mark, we have held that § 1052(a) does not implicate the First Amendment rights of trade- mark applicants. See id. (Op. at 2)
I find it outrageous not just because the court is wrong, but because the court was so glib and dismissive of the First Amendment.
Trademarks propose a commercial transaction; speech that proposes a commercial transaction is “commercial speech” and thus subject to First Amendment protection. Virginia State Bd. Of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, 425 U.S. 748, 762 (1976). Trademarks convey messages about the type, cost and quality of the product or service associated with the mark. See Friedman v. Rogers, 440 U. S. 1, 11 (1979). The trademark is a tightly targeted bit of expressive activity that seeks to persuade a potential customer to choose one product over another, either due to the identification of goods or to the communicative element of the trademark itself.
Thus far, all USPTO decisions regarding the constitutionality of Section 2(A) rely upon the improperly decided case In re Robert L. McGinley, 660 F.2d 41 (Fed Cir. 1981).
McGinley is where we get the idea that since trademark applicants are still free to use the trademarks, then there is no abridgment of speech if your trademark is denied registration due to its content. However, this reasoning is simply shoddy and contrary to a body of First Amendment jurisprudence. For example, in striking down New York’s “Son of Sam” law, which prohibited criminals from profiting from writing books about their crimes, the Supreme Court held “[a] statute is presumptively inconsistent with the First Amendment if it imposes a financial burden on speakers because of the content of their speech.” Simon & Schuster v. New York State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105, 115 (1991). In the Son of Sam case, the authors were still free to write, but were denied the financial benefits of their labors. That was the end of that law. This appears to completely dispense with the McGinley reasoning.
Bad Frog Brewery, Inc. v. New York States Liquor Authority, 134 F.3d 87 (2d Cir. 1998) analyzed a similar issue. In that case, the appellant sought to use a trademark of a frog giving the finger. The Second Circuit held that since trademarks are commercial speech, prohibition on use of so-called “offensive” trademarks did not advance the stated governmental purpose of protecting children from vulgarity or promoting temperance, nor was it narrowly tailored to serve that purpose. Not binding on the Fed. Cir., but I think that the Fed. Cir. is the wrong place to challenge McGinley. There is no indication that the Fed. Cir. will ever admit that it was wrong in McGinley, and every time it gets a chance, it doubles down.
Finally, there can be no clearer authority for the death of Section 2(a) than Lawrence v. Texas. (“The fact a State’s governing majority has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice.”)
“Morality” is not a valid reason to confer or deny a governmental benefit – instead the government must articulate a reason why registration of a mark might be harmful, and then apply that reason to the particular circumstances at hand, in a narrow manner. The government has done none of this in this case, nor in any other 2(a) denial.
2(a) Delendum Est!