It was only a matter of time.
THE “GOOD OLD DAYS” BEFORE DISPARAGING, VULGAR AND SCANDALOUS TRADEMARKS
For seventy years the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) refused to register marks that consisted of “immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage…..” citing § 2(a) of the Lanham Act.
Last June the Supreme Court struck down section 2(a)’s prohibition of disparaging marks and the other shoe just dropped when the Federal Circuit struck down its prohibition of vulgar, immoral or scandalous marks, allowing someone to register the mark FUCT.
The Slants Crush § 2(a)’s Prohibition of Disparaging Marks
In 2010, Simon Shiao Tam, lead singer of the Oregon based Asian American rock band, sought to disarm the “toxic language and symbols” associated with the term “slants” by registering the mark “THE SLANTS” for the band. The USPTO found the term disparaging to people of Asian descent and refused to register the mark under § 2(a). Tam appealed, the Trademark Trial and Appeal (TTTBA) affirmed, Tam appealed, the Federal District Court initially affirmed the TTTBA’s decision, but later decided on its own to grant en banc review and reversed, finding that § 2(a) violated the First Amendment. The USPTO still refused to register the mark and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. In June 2017, the Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit Court, holding that the disparagement clause of § 2(a) “violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
The Slants decision effectively rescued the Washington Redskins’ trademarks. In 2014, the TTTBA decided to cancel the team’s registered trademarks, finding the term “Redskins” disparaging. The team appealed to District Court, which affirmed the TTTBA’s decision, the team appealed to the Fourth Circuit and while the matter was pending, the Supreme Court issued its Slants decision. Early this year the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court, effectively ordering that the team’s marks be reinstated.
The Federal Circuit Orders USPTO to Register FUCT Mark, Striking Down Section 2(a)’s Prohibition of Vulgar, Immoral and Scandalous Marks
In 2011, Erik Brunetti sought to register the mark FUCT for his clothing brand. The USPTO refused to register the mark, finding that “ ‘FUCT’ is the past tense of the verb ‘fuck,’ a vulgar word, and is therefore scandalous.” Brunetti appealed to the TTAB. The TTAB noted that Brunetti “used the mark in the context of ‘strong, and often explicit, sexual imagery that objectifies women and offers degrading examples of extreme misogyny’” and held the mark was “vulgar and therefore un registerable under section 2(a) of the Lanham Act.”
Brunettti appealed the TTAB decision to the Federal Circuit, which heard the appeal after the Supreme Court issued its Slants decision. In a ruling that rivals a South Park episode for the number of swear words, the Federal Circuit agreed with the TTAB that the mark FUCT is vulgar, but followed the Supreme Court’s Slants decision, holding that “the bar in § 2(a) against immoral or scandalous marks is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment.” The Court rejected the USPTO’s argument, similar to its argument in the Slants case, that trademark registration is a government subsidiary, which allows the government some leeway in regulating speech. The Court noted that “[t]here are countless songs with vulgar lyrics, blasphemous images, scandalous books and paintings, all of which are protectable under federal [copyright] law” and reversed the TTAB’s holding that the mark FUCT “is unregisterable under section 2(a).”
What’s Next for Vulgar and Scandalous Trademarks?
We are likely to see a race to the bottom. Much like shock jocks Howard Stern and Don Imus seek to increase market share with outlandish speech, some business owners are likely to see some value in garnering attention via shocking, vulgar and/or scandalous trademarks, and the USPTO will have no choice but to register those marks.