September 30, 2016
On September 29, 2016, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in the matter of Lee v. Tam, regarding whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act is facially invalid under the First Amendment, particularly whether it restricts free speech. This is the appeal from the same case I wrote about last December. I am curious to see how the Supreme Court tackles this issue, and what I consider substantive errors in analysis made by the Federal Circuit last fall.
Nevertheless, while the legal issues are heavily nuanced and regard convoluted topics such as “chilling effects,” “government speech” versus “commercial speech,” “disparagement,” and what constitutes “use in commerce,” it appears the layperson is confused by the scope of the case. Particularly, after the news broke yesterday, the common theme was “why is a musical group not allowed to call itself the Slants?” – which is not only wholly irrelevant to the issue but is also a dangerous interpretation of what I consider to be an important trademark matter.
In short, you can name your rock band whatever you want. You can also name your professional football team whatever you want (looking at you, Washington Redskins). No one is going to stop you. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, however, may refuse to grant you a trademark registration for such a name. Not that the name cannot be a trademark – it can be – but “registration” confers additional benefits that may or may not extend to marks that the USPTO considers to be “disparaging” of people or groups. This is the entirety of what the Supreme Court is going to address.
Instead, here I will try to address the distinction between free speech, trademarks, and trademark registrations in general terms.
Lady Gaga is an American recording artist. She is a singer, a songwriter, and a performer. She recently won a Golden Globe® for her work on the American Horror Story television show. She also was nominated for an Oscar® in 2016. As of 2016, she has sold over 27 million albums worldwide. She also owns registrations for her “Lady Gaga” stage name. I feel confident in stating that Lady Gaga is famous.
Yet in an opinion dated March 30, 2016, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board determined that “the evidence in the record does not rise to the level needed to show that LADY GAGA has achieved true fame among consumers…” Apparently, not even Lady Gaga’s trademarks are commercially recognizable enough to be deemed legally famous in certain areas.
If LADY GAGA is not famous, then how does one reach the level of “fame” in the context of trademarks? This appears to be an absurdly high standard of proof. How do we explain a legal opinion that seems so entirely disconnected from reality?
On December 22, 2015, The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed decades of legal precedent and held that the United States Patent and Trademark Office cannot refuse to grant federal registrations for trademarks on the basis of the mark being “disparaging.” This standard of refusing registrations for “disparaging” marks is derived from Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the federal statute that governs U.S. trademark law.
Did you know that The Coca-Cola Company applied to register a federal trademark for the term “COCA-COLA ZERO”? It is true. Coca-Cola filed the application with the USPTO on March 4, 2005. The application was published for opposition on April 17, 2007. Not surprisingly, the companies that own Dr. Pepper and 7-Up immediately opposed this registration. The battle has been ongoing for over eight years now.
Without going into too much detail, an executive for Coca-Cola testified recently that there are twelve Coke products that use the term ZERO in the product name. This includes Coke Zero, Cherry Coke Zero, Vanilla Coke Zero and others. This is consistent with Coca-Cola’s trademark application, which identified the relevant goods and services as “Beverages, namely soft drinks; syrups and concentrates for the making of the same.” Nevertheless, the “ZERO” part of the mark almost certainly refers to the marketing of these specific products as having “zero calories” per serving size (i.e., one can or bottle). This presents a series of interesting trademark concepts.
Remember a couple weeks ago when the Washington Redskins submitted a laundry list of registered trademarks that its counsel contended were offensive or disparaging? And remember when that same week the makers of “Nut Sack Double Brown Ale” beer were granted a federal trademark registration over similar objections? You should – I wrote it on the paper.
Now another beer maker has been granted what I will call a questionable trademark registration. One that I am sure would have been listed right at the top of the Washington Redskins’ bad name list. LEFT NUT BREWING COMPANY is now a federally registered trademark. Really. On November 13, 2015, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board reversed the decision of the trademark examining attorney and granted the registration.
I am sure that Daniel Snyder is handling this news with calm, cool reflection. Or whatever the exact opposite of that is.
Last week, counsel for the Washington Redskins submitted a lengthy brief to the Fourth Circuit that, in part, provided a laundry list of other trademarks that have been registered by the USPTO and were implicitly deemed not to be immoral, scandalous, disparaging or otherwise offensive. In a parallel but unrelated matter, the owners of the trademark for NUT SACK DOUBLE BROWN ALE – for a beer flavor, naturally – overcame a challenge to their mark and were granted a federal trademark registration.
These two decisions seem incongruous, but are they really? At the very least, I hope to see an episode of South Park where Cartman wears a Washington Redskins™ jersey while drinking a Nut Sack®-flavored drink.