A Slanted View of Trademarks and Free Speech

November 4, 2015

by Jay Marshall Wolman

Free speech and the Lanham Act (the federal law dealing with trademarks) has been a hot topic of late.  There are two high profile matters in separate courts of appeals challenging the constitutionality of Section 2(a), which prohibits the registration of disparaging marks.

In the Federal Circuit is the matter In re: Tam, in which the band, The Slants, is challenging the refusal of the registration of the mark in its name.  Their brief can be found here.  Marc previously commented on that case here. (Disclaimer: Marc wrote a brief for the First Amendment Lawyers’ Association. That brief is here. You may also want to read Marc’s infamous “Fuck” brief here. The viewpoints expressed herein are my own and should not be construed as those of Marc Randazza, Randazza Legal Group, or the First Amendment Lawyers’ Association.)

And, in the Fourth Circuit, is the matter of Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, in which the Washington Redskins are challenging the cancellation of their mark.  Their brief can be found here.

The Slants and the Redskins are both arguing, among other things, that the ban on registration of disparaging marks is an unconstitutional restriction of speech.  It is not a content-neutral regulation and they claim that the denial or cancellation burdens their commercial speech, when compared to others, since they cannot enforce the marks to the same extent.  They claim it is not government sanctioned speech, per se, simply by registering the mark.  The Redskins brief specifically  highlights other offensive (it believes) marks that have passed muster and no one believes that the registration=government speech.  It specifically distinguishes the Texas License Plate case, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.,135 S. Ct. 2239 (2015), noting that trademark registrations, unlike license plates, are not generally known to be vehicles for government speech.

Because these are pending before different circuits, it is well possible for there to be a circuit split that might ultimately warrant Supreme Court review.

Omitted from discussion, and worth noting, is that, in essence, trademarks actually limit free speech.  Prof. Lisa Ramsey argues as much here.  Conceptually, a trademark registration means that my right to speak your mark is limited.  Hypothetically, it means that in my sporting goods store that caters to British clients, I cannot probably label American baseballs as Yankee balls; it means that I cannot probably market a device that lets a Microsoft and Apple computer talk to each other as a “Surface to Air Missile”.  And descriptive marks are even more limiting–only Fox News is allowed to call itself “Fair and Balanced”.

When thinking about these together, the Slants and Redskins are arguing that their speech rights are being limited because they don’t have the same right to limit the speech of others as others might have.  Normally, the argument is that registration of the mark limits speech.  Here, they argue that denial of registration limits speech.  They may well be right in the end, but this is definitely one of those interesting competing rights cases.

And Then a Sensible Dinner

August 4, 2015

by Jay Marshall Wolman, CIPP/US

I was driving home from Philadelphia this past Sunday after a wedding, when I learned about the dietary habits of Attorney Rand Spear.


(Something like the Rand Corporation, only smarter.)

The story is nothing new. And, apparently, Mr. Spear holds a trademark in that phrase.  This serves as a reminder that phrases can be trademarked.

Other well-known phrases have been trademarked, e.g., Coke is it! (cancelled).  Some are completely random:  I love what you’ve done with the trash!

A phrase that is trademarked, like a logo, may also enjoy copyright protection.  And the misuse of a trademarked phrase could wind up subjecting a defendant to both copyright and trademark liability.  The defenses might not necessarily be identical and even if one count is thrown out, the other might survive.

For those wondering:  Lawyers may or may not be permitted under state ethics rules and the First Amendment to advertise their gustatory predilections, though the 2nd Circuit’s decision in Alexander v Cahill (cert. denied) is persuasive (Heavy Hitter attorneys prevailed).

It is unclear if Mr. Spear literally or figuratively eats insurances companies for breakfast or any other meal.  Personally, if my last name were “Spear”, I’d be using imagery invoking my name rather than my gut.  Something a bit more fun.

Forgetting, for a second, the outcome of that fight (spoiler alert!!) isn’t that a better lawyer vs insurer image?

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.

Federal Circuit’s COCKSUCKER Decision Sucks

December 20, 2012

cork soaker

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!

Sticking up for the big guy: United v. Untied.com

November 29, 2012

I got this story in my inbox — that United Airlines was trying to bully a website that is dedicated to complaining about United Airlines – Untied.com.

United Continental Holdings has sued a Canadian professor who maintains the 15-year-old complaint website Untied.com, which airs complaints from disgruntled United Airlines passengers and employees.

Two suits filed in Canadian courts allege the complaint site violates the airline’s copyright and trademarks. It also alleges the site violates the privacy of senior airline employees by posting contact information for those employees.

Reading that, I got all ready to write a post about what assholes United and its lawyers must be. Imagine my disappointment when I didn’t really get to do that.

The article continues:

United said it is not trying to prevent the site’s owner, Jeremy Cooperstock, from operating a website where people can express their views about United, but instead is trying to protect its intellectual property, such as its logo, and trying to alleviate confusion by United customers who might think they are filing a complaint with the airline on Untied.com.

“We are not requesting the website be shut down,” said United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy.

It was only after an April redesign of Cooperstock’s site, which made it look more like the new United.com, that the airline asked him to modify his site so customers would not be confused, she said, adding that the move was to protect customers and that the airline tried to resolve the matter without going to court.

It looks like United is not concerned about the content on the site, but how it is delivered. The site does look a lot like United’s. There are disclaimers everywhere, but I still don’t see United’s position being all that unreasonable. Yes, almost any idiot should be able to figure out that they are not really at United’s website. On the other hand, the fact that “untied” is a pretty common typo for “united,” coupled with the similarity in look-and-feel, makes United Airlines’ position a lot more reasonable.

If all they are asking is that the gripe site change some site design elements, this does not raise my hackles.

UPDATE: Since the site untied.com seems to have been taken down, here is a side-by-side comparison of the Untied.com and United.com websites.

Some out there, who don’t really understand trademark law, seem to believe that disclaimers on the Untied.com site mean that nobody would be confused by the mock United site. Others say that only a “moron in a hurry” could be confused by the two. I think that such opinions are ill-informed, and the product of the same instincts that I have — a knee-jerk reaction to start off on the side of the little guy against the big corporation; to immediately (without analysis) think that any attack on a critic’s site is an attack on free speech.

I look at these kinds of cases with a rebuttable presumption that the big bad corporation is the bad guy. That presumption, in this case, seems to be rebutted.

The first rebuttal comes from the information that United let the site go for 15 years, and only complained when the gripe site changed its site design. Historical screen captures show that the site didn’t used to look like that.

The second rebuttal comes from this: “Cooperstock offered to work for United as a paid consultant advising the airline on how to improve customer service. United declined.” If that is true, it is not entirely dispositive. Nevertheless, it does skew the optics of the situation a little. I would be interested to see Cooperstock’s response to that.

The third one comes from Canadian trademark law. Cooperstock is Canadian, and the case was filed in Canada. Mattel, Inc. v. 3894207 Canada Inc., 2006 SCC 22, [2006] 1 SCR 772 gives us some instruction. In that case, the Canadian Supreme Court held that a court should measure the “likelihood of a mistaken inference” from the perspective of the “ordinary hurried purchaser.” The court considered the “ordinary hurried purchaser” to lie somewhere between the “moron in a hurry,” and the “careful and diligent purchaser.” The court relied upon Delisle Foods Ltd. v. Anna Beth Holdings Ltd. reflex, (1992), 45 C.P.R. (3d) 535 (T.M.O.B.), whic stated at pp. 538-39:

When assessing the issue of confusion, the trade marks at issue must be considered from the point of view of the average hurried consumer having an imperfect recollection of the opponent’s mark who might encounter the trade mark of the applicant in association with the applicant’s wares in the market-place.

As Cattanach J. explained in Canadian Schenley Distilleries, at p. 5:

That does not mean a rash, careless or unobservant purchaser on the one hand, nor on the other does it mean a person of higher education, one possessed of expert qualifications. It is the probability of the average person endowed with average intelligence acting with ordinary caution being deceived that is the criterion and to measure that probability of confusion the Registrar of Trade Marks or the Judge must assess the normal attitudes and reactions of such persons.

When we consider the issue of “initial interest confusion,” I think that Mr. Cooperstock has some problems. In fact, it seems to be a testament to United’s patience that they did not go after the Untied.com domain name a long time ago.

When looking at this, it is important to understand that there are two types of people who will be dissuaded from doing business with United: The first group are people who read the message on Untied.com, which boils down to “United sucks.” If Cooperstock convinces you of that fact, then that is the marketplace of ideas in action. That is Mr. Cooperstock providing a valuable service, and properly exercising his right to free expression.

On the other hand, there is a second group — a group that comes to the website through mistake, who lingers just a little bit, and by the numbers, a portion of them move on to other websites.

You see, the issue of consumer confusion is not resolved with the simpleton analysis of “nobody would buy a plane ticket from untied.com.” The issue is that more than a few consumers will type “untied” instead of “united” every day — just through the likelihood of that common typographical error occurring. If you are an “ordinary hurried purchaser,” you may get to that site, even with a popup disclaimer, and spend a few minutes there before you realize that you are not, in fact, at United.com.

What do you do then?

Most people would then do what they could to find the right website. But, it wouldn’t take a genius to realize that a certain percentage of people, who might otherwise have bought a ticket, will put it off, or not buy at all, just because the impulse passes. Another percentage may have sought out United.com, just for information, who then lose interest. Remember, a business’ website is not merely a place to purchase tickets. It is a valuable segment in its branding strategy. The pop-up and disclaimers are of little value, given that the average consumer isn’t likely to read the pop up or the disclaimers. When it comes to initial interest confusion on the Internet, even a few seconds’ long detour will cause some harm to the mark owner.

The fact is, a certain number of United’s consumers suffer inconvenience due to the site, and independent of the message on the site, they are driven away from doing business with the airline.

Were I judging this case, I’d say that Cooperstock has every right to say every last thing he says on his website. But, I think his choice of domain, and his attempt to make the site look and feel like United.com, both crossed the line. I think it went even further if United asked him, pre-suit, to simply make some design changes, and he refused. It goes over the cliff if United’s claim that Cooperstock offered to provide his “customer relations services” for a fee.

Sorry guys, I love the little guy as much as anyone else. I never fly United either, mostly because their website is a nightmare to navigate, and I haven’t thought too highly of their customer service either. But, sometimes the little guy is out of bounds.

Wanna own the Righthaven trademark?

May 2, 2012

By J. DeVoy

Hey, you! Give your failed life some meaning by purchasing Righthaven’s registered servicemark!  Available now on eBay!


From the “I’m So Clever” File

April 26, 2012

Federal Judge Slaps Back Dino M. Zaffina in Darts Trademark Battle – Los Angeles News – The Informer


Odd story.  Basically, some dart fan joins the Southern California Darts Association.  They snub him by not using his middle initial, unlike, say, the SAG forcing Michael Fox and Jim Bullock to add middle initials.  So, he finds out that there is no corporation with that name (as the former corporate entity lapsed).  He registers a corporation with that name and tries to stop the association from using that name.  After some surprising initial success, he met with a big ole Fail.

Not sure why he met with initial success (and no, I’m not making a pun regarding the snub), since this is a pretty straight forward issue.  These folks were using the name.  You can’t bounce them out simply by incorporating with that name.  That would be like discovering that “The Beatles” never formed a corporate entity, so you register “The Beatles, Inc.” and try to keep Sir Paul and Ringo from making appearances together as a “Beatles Reunion”.  Prior use, for the win.

Bieber Bang Bus Presents

March 6, 2012


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