Amid the hullabaloo over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week in Matal v. Tam, a much broader and potentially more significant development might be overlooked. It shouldn’t be.

The case involved Simon Tam’s band “The Slants,” and as our Elizabeth Patton wrote earlier this week, it invalidated the Lanham Act’s prohibition on the registration of disparaging marks. The crucial development that might be missed, however, is separate from the fascination over whether this decision spells the end of efforts to invalidate the trademark registrations held by the NFL for its football team in Washington, D.C. – it does. Rather, the Slants’ case should be seen for what is lurking in the opinions of the concurring justices. That is, the Tam decision marks a potent evisceration of the First Amendment’s commercial speech doctrine, ensuring heightened constitutional protection for commercial speakers.

U.S. Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.
Copyright: Blakeley / 123RF Stock Photo

The commercial speech doctrine has long been invoked to allow broader, more intrusive regulation by government of speech that can be characterized as “commercial.” This is the doctrine that justifies not only the Trademark Office’s regulation of trademarks, but also the Federal Trade Commission’s regulation of social media, and a local municipality’s regulation of highway billboards. The commercial speech doctrine holds that because commercial speech is more robust – that is, because it is financially better equipped to defend itself – the government may have a freer hand in regulating such speech. Under this doctrine, a government regulation of commercial speech has heretofore been subject to a lesser degree of constitutional review – the so-called “intermediate” scrutiny of the Supreme Court’s Central Hudson test.

The Tam case dramatically undermines those prior principles.

Indeed, the various opinions in the Tam case buttress a development in the law that has been building in recent years, where the Supreme Court has been much more skeptical of government attempts to regulate the speech of businesses and other commercial actors. This latest case now solidifies a five-justice majority, and potentially a larger one, that will require rigorous, full-bore, core-speech “strict scrutiny” for government regulations of commercial speech when the regulations attempt to restrict or punish non-misleading commercial speech on the basis of the “viewpoint” expressed in the speech.

In other words, there are at least five justices, and likely more, who no longer focus on whether the speech being regulated is “commercial.” Instead, these justices are willing to apply strict scrutiny – and even a presumption of unconstitutionality – to a regulation that can be characterized as “viewpoint” based.

The nose-counting for this principle looks like this:

In his separate concurrence in Tam, Justice Thomas reiterated his long-held view, one that he persistently expressed along with the late Justice Scalia, that all government regulation of commercial speech should be subjected to strict scrutiny if the speech to be regulated is not misleading. Thus, as First Amendment scholars have long recognized, Justice Thomas already stands in the camp that rejects the rationale of the commercial speech doctrine, that commercial speech is entitled to less protection under the First Amendment.

In addition to Justice Thomas, a four-justice wing led by Justice Kennedy concurred with the outcome in Tam. Kennedy, along with Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan (that is, the so-called “liberal” wing of the Court) sounded a clarion call for the highest level of constitutional scrutiny on regulations that attack a person’s speech based on the speaker’s viewpoint, regardless of whether the speaker is engaged in commercial speech. Justice Kennedy wrote that “it is a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that the government may not punish or suppress speech based on disapproval of the ideas or perspectives the speech conveys.” He then said that regardless of whether the speech in question is commercial – that is, regardless of the nuances of the commercial speech doctrine – “[a] law found to discriminate based on viewpoint is an egregious form of content discrimination which is presumptively unconstitutional.” (emphasis added)

Thus, there is a five-justice majority, between Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, that will apply full First Amendment protection against a government regulation that discriminates on the basis of a speaker’s viewpoint, regardless of whether the speaker is commercial or not.

And finally, there is reason to anticipate sympathy for this view even among the rest of the justices. The portion of Justice Alito’s principal opinion that reflected only a four-justice plurality of himself, and Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Breyer, observed that the Supreme Court has said “time and again” that the public expression of ideas “may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”

These pronouncements line up to be an eight-justice majority, and potentially a unanimous Court once Justice Gorsuch’s views become known (he did not participate in the Tam case). The Court has thus made clear that the government is barred from regulating truthful, non-misleading commercial speech where the only justification for the regulation is that the commercial speech offends the sensibilities of the listeners.

This expansion of the strict-scrutiny regime into territory once thought to be an area of more fulsome government regulation puts into play all kinds of statutory regimes. Clearly, in addition to the anti-disparagement provision of the Lanham Act, that statute’s additional prohibitions against the registration of trademarks that are “scandalous” or “immoral” soon will be invalidated. (Indeed, the Trademark Office has already signaled its recognition of the likely invalidity of these provisions in briefing it submitted to the Federal Circuit last year.) As a reuslt, trademark applicants who previously were unable to obtain registrations of marks with profanity in them or marks with sexual innuendoes now likely will be able to obtain such registrations.

Similarly, the FTC’s regulatory guidance that has required media companies to disclose whether content on their websites are “sponsored” is potentially subject to strict scrutiny because these restrictions are a regulation of commercial speech based on the viewpoint of the speaker.

Other statutory regimes are equally at risk under this now more robust protection of commercial speech. Hence, states that have enacted “veggie libel” laws that prohibit advertising that criticizes a state’s agricultural products are now likely to face a presumption of unconstitutionality and a need to justify the laws under a strict scrutiny regime.

In addition, states that have enforced restrictions on companies’ truthful, non-misleading advertising will face more legal challenges. One prime example will be the states where marijuana has been legalized but the states have also restricted how those cannabis businesses may advertise their products. Those regulations discriminate against the cannabis business’ advertising based on their viewpoint. The Tam decision means that those regulations are presumptively unconstitutional.

Similarly, municipalities that have prohibited or restricted the advertising of ride-sharing or room-sharing businesses also will find it much more difficult to defend such commercial speech regulations because they enjoin speech on the basis of the speakers’ viewpoints.

The fundamental sea change that can be seen in the Tam decision is that non-misleading, truthful commercial speech is no longer the benighted stepchild of the First Amendment. Rather, such speech now is entitled to the strongest form of constitutional protection when the government seeks to regulate such speech because of the speaker’s viewpoint – that is, when the speech is targeted “based on the government’s disapproval of the speaker’s choice of message.”

The practical effect of the Tam case, when read together with the earlier line of decisions applying the highest form of First Amendment protection against viewpoint discrimination, is that businesses now have an even stronger First Amendment basis to resist government efforts to control the way they speak to the public and their customers when their speech is not misleading.

A New York case decided this week by the U.S. Supreme Court involving a state prohibition on credit card surcharge fees would not, at first blush, seem to involve “speech,” let alone “speech” that needs to be protected by the First Amendment.  Indeed, a credit card surcharge fee – such as, for example, a nondescript warning stating “3% added for credit cards” – hardly seems to be in the same league as The Pentagon Papers, or Fanny Hill, or even the fundraising advertisement “Heed Their Rising Voices” by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, all of which were subjects of profound First Amendment cases.

ice cream sundae
Copyright: tul / 123RF Stock Photo

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision announced on Wednesday (Mar. 29, 2017) in Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman, 551 U.S. —, 2017 WL 1155913, involving something as innocuous as a thirty cents surcharge for using a credit card to pay for a ten dollar sundae at Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain marks a significant evolution in free speech law, one that has the prospect of affecting many areas of economic regulation.  The Court’s holding means that trade regulations that previously were perceived as solely government restrictions on economic activity having nothing to do with free speech rights are now potentially subject to First Amendment challenges if the government’s restrictions impose unwarranted burdens on a merchant’s ability to communicate information concerning the merchant’s products or services.  As a result, this “sleeper” decision from the Roberts Court marks yet another step in the continuing expansion of the Court’s use of the First Amendment to limit the ability of government to regulate economic activity.

The case itself is arcane in its details.  The matter involves a New York statute that was a duplicate of a federal measure that Congress enacted in 1981 but which Congress let expire in 1984.  The New York statute has the same effect as a contractual prohibition that previously had been incorporated into credit card companies’ contracts with merchants, but which the credit card companies dropped under pressure from antitrust lawsuits brought by merchants upset with the credit card companies’ efforts to prevent merchants from steering customers toward using cash instead of credit cards.

The New York statute establishes that “[n]o seller in any sales transaction may impose a surcharge on a holder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check, or similar means.”

On its face, this statutory language has nothing to do with speech.  The statute simply prohibits a merchant from imposing a “surcharge” on a customer who elects to use a credit card instead of cash.

However, both the five-justice majority for the Court led by Chief Justice Roberts as well as a concurring opinion by Justice Breyer held that this statutory provision regulates more than mere conduct – what price a merchant may impose – but it also regulates speech.  The Court held that the operation of the New York statute regulates “how sellers may communicate their prices”:

“A merchant who wants to charge $10 for cash and $10.30 for credit may not convey that price any way he pleases. He is not free to say ‘$10, with a 3% credit card surcharge‘ or ‘$10, plus $0.30 for credit‘ because both of those displays identify a single sticker price–$10–that is less than the amount credit card users will be charged. Instead, if the merchant wishes to post a single sticker price, he must display $10.30 as his sticker price.”

The Court then concluded that “[i]n regulating the communication of prices rather than prices themselves, §518 regulates speech.”

This short assertion – that the statute regulates speech, rather than conduct – opens up the entire panoply of the First Amendment’s commercial speech doctrine.  As a result, and as the Supreme Court directed, the State of New York must now attempt to defend the statute, either on the grounds that it is a valid, non-discriminatory “disclosure” requirement, or on the grounds that it is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “substantial government interest.”  The trial court which heard the case initially concluded that the New York statute could not survive these First Amendment tests.  On remand from the Supreme Court, it will now be up to the Second Circuit to determine whether the trial court judge was correct.

In any event, the ruling now given by the Supreme Court to the first question – does the statute regulate speech – has the potential to open up constitutional challenges against various and sundry economic regulations that could be said to regulate the “communication” of a price as opposed to the “price” itself.  Hence, statutes or regulations that prohibit “Ladies Night” discounts at bars or clubs might now be said to regulate the “communication” of such discounted prices, rather than prohibiting the prices themselves, and as a result, the prohibitions against such prices might now be challenged on First Amendment grounds.  Similarly, local ordinances requiring the imposition of a 5 cents surcharge on customers who want their groceries in a plastic bag might well be challenged on First Amendment grounds, on the strength that such ordinances regulate how merchants “communicate” their prices, as opposed to the conduct of the price itself.  Additionally, regulations that prohibit merchants from imposing differential pricing based where a customer comes from – such as prohibitions against “residents” discounts – also now may be challenged on First Amendment grounds.

As Justice Breyer remarked in his concurrence in the Expressions Hair Design case, “virtually all government regulation affects speech.”  (Justice Breyer’s point was actually that it is less important whether a government provision regulates speech than it is to consider how much speech, and what kind, is affected by the regulation.)

In light of that observation – that government regulations fundamentally affect speech of all kinds – this latest case from the Supreme Court opens up a new tool for businesses to consider when challenging a regulation that affects their abilities to communicate with their customers.  This new decision means that businesses might now require the government to prove that an economic regulation that previously was subject only to highly deferential “rational basis” review is instead justifiable under more rigorous “substantial interest” scrutiny.

In this regard, the Court’s decision in Expressions Hair Design will come to be seen as a watershed moment for those wishing to challenge government regulation of economic activity.

This week, the Federal Circuit issued a new decision that once again reflects the tricky conundrum facing businesses whose trademarks are a collection of descriptive words.

In such circumstances, the Patent & Trademark Office – as well as the courts that review PTO decisions – frequently require such a business to “disclaim” any rights in the words that comprise the business’ mark.  This disclaimer requirement is imposed on the grounds that the words in the mark are merely descriptive on their own and that as a result, the business should not be permitted to own trademark rights which would otherwise prevent other businesses from using those words for their own separate businesses.

In some cases, as was the situation for DDMB, Inc., the Chicago business involved in the current case, the Trademark Office will require the business to disclaim every word in the business’ name, such that the business is not entitled to any rights in any of the individual words apart from their inclusion in the full mark.

This legal doctrine came to bear most recently against a company that operates a pair of Chicago restaurants, in the case In re DDMB, Inc., — Fed. Appx. —, 2017 WL 915102 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 8, 2017).  In its decision, the Federal Circuit affirmed a prior ruling in January 2016 by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, denying federal registration for a service mark using the phrase “EMPORIUM ARCADE BAR.”  The examining attorney at the Trademark Office had required the applicant to disclaim the word “emporium,” after the business already had disclaimed the words “arcade” and “bar,” in its application to register the following mark:

Emporium Arcade Bar - Trademark Registration Application
Source: In re: DDMB, Inc. Opinion, Issued March 6, 2017

When the Chicago business refused to agree to the additional disclaimer of the word “emporium,” the Trademark Office refused to approve the registration, which was being sought in connection with bars, bar services, and providing video and amusement arcade services. The Office’s insistence on a disclaimer of the word “emporium” was approved by the TTAB in a subsequent decision in January 2016. And, that decision has now been affirmed in this week’s ruling by the circuit court.

In holding that a disclaimer of the word “emporium” is required because it is merely descriptive of the applicant’s bar and arcade services, the TTAB had ruled that this word describes attributes of a large establishment with a wide variety of merchandise and activity going on within it, and that as a result, the word functions as a description of the applicant’s services rather than as an indicator of the origin or source of the services. The TTAB’s ruling was premised on dictionary definitions and at least seven other trademark registrations where the word “emporium” had been seen to be descriptive and where a disclaimer was required as a result. Specifically, for example, the TTAB cited registrations where disclaimers were imposed for the marks “THE FLYING SAUCER DRAUGHT EMPORIUM,” “McDADE’S EMPORIUM,” and “STAMPEDE MESQUITE GRILL & DANCE EMPORIUM,” each of which involved businesses with similar bar services.

(The circuit court affirmed the TTAB’s ruling, in a non-precedential, per curiam decision in light of the extremely generous standard of review on appeal for such factual determinations by the TTAB because the circuit court is required to affirm such determinations if there is “substantial evidence” to support them.)

The In re DDMB case stands as a cautionary tale for businesses with names that are otherwise descriptive words, or collections of descriptive words. The trouble for the applicant here is that there is a long history of the Trademark Office requiring applicants to disclaim the word “emporium.” This trouble was accentuated by the fact that the applicant sought to register a composite mark that had other descriptive words in the mark that the applicant already had disclaimed. The specimen that the applicant submitted with its application highlighted this trouble:

Emporium Arcade Bar - USPTO File Wrapper Record Image
Source: USPTO file-wrapper record, U.S. TM Serial No. 86312296, June 17, 2014.

In such circumstances, instead of seeking registration for a mark in which the word “emporium” was displayed with equal visual significance as “arcade” and “bar,” the applicant might have considered applying for registration of a different version of the mark, with only the one word “emporium,” such as what is now visible at the applicant’s storefront at its Logan Square restaurant in Chicago, as shown on its website:

Emporium Arcade Bar - Front
Source: Emporium Arcade Bar Website, March 10, 2017

Ultimately, however, even if the application had focused on only one word, as opposed to three, it is still likely that the Trademark Office would have required a disclaimer of the word “emporium” because of the long history of treating this word as merely descriptive.

As a result, and as a lesson for businesses with highly descriptive words in their names, it may be wise to accept a demand from a trademark examiner to disclaim the descriptive word in a business’ mark – if only as a means of moving forward with the federal trademark registration –and then to invest in building consumer recognition of the business’ mark. Some of the most famous marks today, which have been around for generations, continue to have disclaimers on portions of the mark. Hence, The Coca Cola Co.’s registration of DIET COKE® continues to carry a disclaimer for the word “diet,” and KFC Corp.’s registration of KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN® continues to carry disclaimers for the words “fried” and “chicken.”

The moral of this story may be that disclaimers are a necessary evil when a business’ mark is a word that the Trademark Office already has concluded is merely descriptive.

Yesterday, on February 13, 2017, the Eighth Circuit issued a resounding affirmation of First Amendment principles in a case raising the question of just how far a public university can go in preventing the use of its marks by student organizations whose views the university may oppose or object to. We previously discussed the dispute in early December, before the court heard arguments in the case.

ISU NORML t-shirtIn the opinion, the unanimous appellate panel held that the First Amendment trumps normal trademark licensing principles for public universities, ruling that Iowa State University violated the First Amendment rights of students at the ISU chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, when ISU barred the chapter from using ISU’s marks in conjunction with images or messages that advocated in favor of marijuana.

In this case, Gerlich v. Leath (8th Cir., No. 16-1518), the court ruled that the university’s trademark licensing program for student organizations – which otherwise allows student groups at the university to use certain of the university’s marks on a royalty-free basis, subject to standard trademark licensing arrangements – constituted a “limited-purpose public forum” in which student organizations could take advantage of the university’s marks to advance their own causes.

The court then ruled, applying standard and well-settled First Amendment principles, that because the trademark licensing program is a public forum, the First Amendment prohibits the university from discriminating against or between speakers in that forum on the basis of the speakers’ viewpoints.

That conclusion necessarily means, the court held, that ISU violated the First Amendment when it prevented the NORML chapter at ISU from taking advantage of the university’s trademark licensing program in the wake of public controversy surrounding the chapter’s advocacy in favor of reforming marijuana laws:  “The defendants’ rejection of NORML ISU’s designs discriminated against that group on the basis of the group’s viewpoint. The state engages in viewpoint discrimination when the rationale for its regulation of speech is ‘the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker.’ . . . The defendants’ discriminatory motive is evidenced by the unique scrutiny defendants imposed on NORML ISU.”

Although ultimately unsurprising in terms of its application of First Amendment law, the Eight Circuit’s decision is likely to have a significant impact on public universities and colleges in how they handle trademark licensing requests.  The holding in this case means that when a university establishes a typical trademark licensing program, especially one for student organizations, the university may not distinguish between licensees (and potential licensees) on the basis of those licensees’ public statements or viewpoints.  The bottom line is that public unviersities and colleges may not do what any other trademark owner could otherwise do in controlling who gets to use the trademark owner’s marks, at least when the public institution has established a trademark licensing program that is otherwise available to certain classes of licensees, such as student groups.

The case stands as an important reminder that trademark licensing principles are different for governmental organizations because of the overarching constraints of the First Amendment.

Next week (12/14/2016), in a marble tiled courtroom in frosty St. Paul, Minnesota, a panel of judges of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will wrestle with a question that is both as new as the campaign to legalize marijuana and as old as the First Amendment: When can a public university protect its brand, and its valuable trademarks, from being associated with viewpoints or messages that it rejects?

In the case of Gerlich v. Leath (8th Cir., No. 16-1518), a pair of students at Iowa State University are pursuing the provocative position that public universities have no power to discriminate in their trademark licensing practices so as to prevent their marks from being used by student groups that espouse positions the university regards as objectionable.  In that sense, the Gerlich case pits classic trademark rights – the power of a trademark owner to control how his mark is used – against the First Amendment’s prohibition of government discrimination based on a speaker’s viewpoint.

At Iowa State, as is the case at most public universities, student organizations are permitted to license various university trademarks to designate the organization’s involvement with ISU and the organization’s status as a registered student organization.  So long as these student groups comply with standard trademark usage guidelines, such as not altering or modifying the look of the university’s marks, the student groups are permitted to use the university’s marks under royalty-free licenses.  Iowa State has authorized trademark licenses to hundreds of student organizations, including those as varied as the Iowa State University Students for Life, an anti-abortion group, and the Iowa State Democrats, a group supporting abortion rights.  The university’s trademark licensing practices even extended to CUFFS, a sexual bondage student club that was a recognized student organization on campus and which used the university’s trademarks in conjunction with the club’s logo displaying a set of handcuffs.

In the context of these licensing practices, when the university came under fire for publicity garnered by the Iowa State chapter of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), which was using the university’s marks in combination with NORML’s logo displaying a distinctive cannabis leaf, the university put its foot down.  The university revoked any prior authorization for the ISU NORML chapter to use the university’s marks on the student group’s t-shirts – which bore the slogan “Freedom is NORML at ISU” along with a cannabis leaf.  And thereafter, the university prohibited the use of the university’s marks in connection with “illegal” products.

ISU NORML t-shirt

In the face of these actions, the student leaders of ISU NORML brought a First Amendment civil rights suit against Iowa State’s university president and other university administrators, contending that their First Amendment rights were violated by the university’s trademark licensing actions.  The students argued – and Senior District Judge James E. Gritzner, in the trial court in Des Moines, Iowa, agreed – that the university’s exercise of standard trademark licensing powers violated the First Amendment because it constituted “viewpoint discrimination” based on the university’s objections to the student organization’s political views.

Under a robust and well-developed line of judicial decisions, courts have routinely held that one of the most hallowed functions of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from discriminating between speakers on the basis of what they say.  Such “viewpoint discrimination” is per se prohibited by the First Amendment because the essence of this constitutional provision is to prevent the government from favoring one speaker over another on the basis of agreement or disagreement with the content of the speaker’s messages.

In contrast, however, standard and equally well-settled trademark law requires a trademark owner to control a licensee’s use of the owner’s marks, and allows the trademark owner to discriminate in his selection of licensees for his marks on the basis of the trademark owner’s assessment of whether the licensee will undermine the reputation or goodwill of the trademark owner’s brand.

Confronted by these two doctrines, the district court sided with the students in a decision in January this year, issuing an injunction prohibiting the university from refusing to license its marks to the ISU NORML chapter.  Now, on appeal, the university is attempting to escape the strong First Amendment prohibitions against viewpoint discrimination by focusing on how the use of its marks by various student groups can reflect negatively on the university, and as a result, the university’s trademark licensing practices should be regarded as a form of government speech.  (If so, then there is no First Amendment violation because the government is entitled under the First Amendment to say whatever it likes.)

With a bevy of First Amendment scholars and advocacy organizations lining up against the university through various amicus briefs, as well as a vigorous argument on behalf of the students from noted Washington, D.C., First Amendment litigator Robert Corn-Revere, it seems likely that the Eighth Circuit will affirm the injunction and endorse the students’ position that the First Amendment trumps trademark licensing norms when dealing with a public university.

Such a ruling would be another cautionary tale for public institutions with regard to their trademarks, perhaps demonstrating once again that they are “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”

It would also be another instance in the perennial tension between the First Amendment and trademark law demonstrating that in such battles, it is usually the First Amendment that wins.

Stay tuned.  Literally.  The Eighth Circuit posts same-day audio of its oral arguments online.

Although a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet,” (Romeo & Juliet, Act II, sc. 2, ln 48), there just aren’t any trademark registrations to be had in a person’s name, at least not without the person’s written consent.  So the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently reminded a trademark applicant who had applied for a trademark registration for the mark “LOVE TRUMPS HATE,” in connection with clothing.

Registered trademark in a red background
Copyright: silvia / 123RF Stock Photo

In an Office Action issued last week (Nov. 21, 2016), an examining attorney preliminarily rejected a trademark registration application filed for the mark “LOVE TRUMPS HATE” on the grounds that the mark identifies a particular living individual and the applicant had failed to make a part of his application a formal, written consent to the registration from that living person – in this case, president-elect Donald J. Trump.  (See Office Action, Nov. 21, 2016, Trademark Serial No. 87117865.)

The Trademark Office’s response to the application relies on Section 2(c) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(c), which is among the many “statutory bars” that may trip up a business’ effort to secure trademark registrations.  In this case, the statutory bar for non-consensual registrations of marks that identify a living individual is one of the provisions of the Lanham Act intended to protect the personal rights of individuals whose names have become famous or otherwise may be the target of appropriation in the marketplace.  (The prohibition against false endorsements in Section 43(a)(1)(A) of the Lanham Act is another such area of protection for people with famous names.)  The statutory bar in Section 2(c) has been invoked in past cases as a barrier to registrations of marks such as “PRINCESS KATE,” and “BO JACKSON,” and “OBAMA PAJAMA.”

In this most recent case, an applicant from New York City sought to register the famous slogan from the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, in connection with t-shirts, sweatshirts, and caps, on an intent-to-use basis, in an application that was filed with the Trademark Office on July 27, 2016.  At the time of the application, the Clinton campaign had begun using the slogan “Love Trumps Hate” in response to various statements made by the Republican nominee.  Indeed, the last words that Mrs. Clinton uttered in public on the last night of her campaign before Election Day were “Love trumps hate.”

Setting aside questions of whether the use of this slogan on t-shirts, sweatshirts, and caps would be a sufficient usage to designate the source or origin of the products – a question bearing on whether the phrase functions as an actual trademark, rather than merely an ornamental slogan – the Trademark Office issued its preliminary denial because, the examining attorney concluded, the phrase “LOVE TRUMPS HATE” “clearly references Donald Trump.”  The Trademark Office was not swayed by the fact that this phrase obviously conveys a meaning apart from a reference to Mr. Trump, in that it propounds a worldview in which the emotion of love overcomes those things we may despise.  The Trademark Office pointed out that the statutory bar precludes registration of any mark that identifies a living individual (where the person does not give formal, written consent) if the person identified in the mark “is so well known that the public would reasonably assume a connection between the person and the goods.”

Of course, this specific Office Action is only a preliminary refusal to register the mark, and the applicant may well attempt to bring to bear the gamut of First Amendment arguments that certainly protect the applicant’s right to criticize Mr. Trump.  Whether those First Amendment rights are sufficient to authorize a trademark registration in this context is a legal question that the Trademark Office likely would not find persuasive, especially in light of the Office’s positions in other cases involving the intersection of the Lanham Act’s statutory bars and the First Amendment.

Nevertheless, this little anecdote is a cautionary reminder to businesses that their trademarks may not be registrable if they identify a particular living individual, absent a formal written consent from that individual, where the mark’s use of a person’s name would cause the public to see a connection between the famous person and the goods for which the mark is used.  (Whether such protection of a celebrity’s right of publicity is a good or bad thing, or is overreaching, is a legislative question to be addressed to Congress, and in that regard, it is a question likely to go unresolved in this era celebrity-drenched politics.)  Thus, businesses seeking to appropriate the fame of a well-known person’s name in their trademarks – even in this context of a double entendre on Mr. Trump’s name – would be well advised to think twice, or certainly, to negotiate a consent agreement that avoids the difficulty of having an application for registration denied on the strength of this statutory bar.