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.

This morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated ruling in the Lee v. Tam (now designated Matal v. Tam) trademark dispute involving the rock band, The Slants.  As detailed in an earlier blog post, the legal issue faced by the Supreme Court was whether section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which bars the registration of disparaging trademarks, is constitutional.

roadsign
Copyright: 72soul / 123RF Stock Photo

Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court, which affirmed 8-0 the Federal Circuit’s prior determination that the disparaging trademark ban is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.  In reaching that conclusion, Justice Alito explained that trademarks constitute private speech, not government speech as the government had argued.  As Justice Alito pointedly and simply stated, “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”  Justice Alito’s analysis, other aspects of his opinion joined by a smaller number of justices, and two concurring opinions can be read here.

As noted in an earlier blog post, although the Supreme Court decided to hear the Tam case last year, it decided not to hear the Washington Redskins’ related trademark dispute described in another earlier blog post.  It now seems that the Supreme Court’s decision with respect to The Slants will allow the Washington Redskins to keep their federally-registered trademarks in the Redskins name, despite the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s prior cancellation of a number of those trademarks.  More broadly, the outcome of the Tam case may entitle any trademark registrant to invoke the First Amendment’s free speech clause to register disparaging or offensive trademarks.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board refused to allow registration of a USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program mark for “arranging and conducting ice hockey programs for injured and disabled members and veterans”, finding the mark was too similar to a mark owned by USA Hockey, Inc. (see a comparison of the marks below). The Board rejected USA Warriors’ arguments that USA Warriors owned an existing registration for a similar mark that had co-existed with the USA Hockey mark, and that USA Hockey consented because USA Hockey actually displayed USA Warriors’ registered mark on its website.

Source: http://thettablog.blogspot.com

The Board’s precedential ruling affirmed a Trademark Examining Attorney’s refusal to register the USA Warriors’ mark under Section 2(d) of the Lanham Act, which is the statutory basis for refusing to register a mark due to likelihood of confusion with another mark. USA Warriors never disputed that the marks were similar and that the services were related. USA Warriors’ principal argument on appeal to the Board was that the marks had co-existed and that, under a previous Board decision called Strategic Partners, the Board should overturn the refusal and allow the mark to register. Similar to Strategic Partners, USA Warriors argued for invoking the 13th factor (one of the “du Pont” factors) in analyzing likelihood of confusion, which “accommodates the need for flexibility in assessing each unique set of facts”.

 

In rejecting USA Warriors’ argument, the Board noted that Strategic Partners involved an applicant’s registered that had co-existed for more than five years. The Board found the five-year period significant because, once the mark was registered for more than five years, it could not be challenged for likelihood of confusion under the Lanham Act. In the USA Warriors case, its existing registration for the mark shown below was issued less than five years ago making it subject to a cancellation action by USA Hockey based on likelihood of confusion. The 3 ½ years of coexistence was insufficient to outweigh the other du Pont factors, the Board concluded.

Source: http://thettablog.blogspot.com

As to USA Warriors’ consent argument, the Board determined USA Warriors and USA Hockey never entered into a consent agreement, which would have likely played a “crucial role” in the Board’s likelihood of confusion analysis. Although USA Hockey did display the USA Warriors’ mark on its website, the Board concluded that such evidence was insufficient for a finding of consent.

 

This case allows us to remind potential applicants that for purposes of obtaining a trademark registration, a third party’s mere permission to use a mark, even on the third party’s website, is insufficient because, from the Board’s perspective (and the Examining Attorney’s perspective), the third party never actually consented to registration of the mark. The best way to show that a third party did consent to registration is a consent agreement.

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.

What comes to mind when you hear the term “LifeProof”? Does it immediately make you think of something that protects from all of life’s hazards or does it merely suggest that something can withstand various accidents? That is what the Ninth Circuit in California is deciding in Seal Shield LLC v. Otter Products LLC, et. al. after hearing oral arguments on the topic in January. The issues central to the case hammer home the importance of using your trademarks in the right way—as a trademark identifying a brand—or a source—and not as term that merely describes the product.

In this case, Seal Shield and Otter Products both claim rights to the same term—LIFEPROOF. Seal Shield argues that it was the first to use it, so it should have the rights. Otter Products counters and argues that Seal Shield did not use it in the right way—that Seal Shield only used it to describe the product and not as a trademark.

Copyright: 91foto / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: 91foto / 123RF Stock Photo

Seal Shield sued Otter Products and TreeFrog Developments (which was acquired by Otter Products) after TreeFrog Developments obtained a federal trademark for LIFEPROOF in 2010. Seal Shield brought a suit in 2013 and argued that it had senior rights to the name LIFEPROOF and requested that the court cancel Otter Products’ trademark as a matter of law. In ruling in favor of Otter Products, the district court held that as a matter of law Seal Shield did not have proprietary rights to the LIFEPROOF name because the way Seal Shield used the name (as a tagline or slogan with its Klear Kase protective cases) was merely descriptive.

Seal Shield appealed the district court decision arguing that its use of LIFEPROOF is not merely descriptive but is suggestive. Specifically, Seal Shield argued that LIFEPROOF falls short of explicitly describing the various features that are included under the mark LIFEPROOF and it takes a mental leap to associate the word LIFEPROOF with a protective case that protects from all of the elements and human error, meaning the mark is suggestive. Seal Shield also argued the mere fact that the USPTO granted TreeFrog Developments federal registration of LIFEPROOF demonstrates that such mark is protectable.

For its part, in addition to a myriad of other arguments, Otter Products contends that Seal Shield’s use of the LIFEPROOF mark is merely descriptive and that it failed to show any consumer evidence of secondary meaning—such as a survey showing that consumers associate their use of LIFEPROOF with the goods of one maker rather than merely describing the product. And to address the seeming inconsistency, Otter Products contends that Seal Shield cannot rely on Otter Products’ federal registration as evidence that the mark LIFEPROOF is distinctive because, as Otter Products argues, it uses the mark as a trademark and not merely to describe the goods.

The court will rule on this appeal later this year. You may think it’s counter-intuitive for Otter Products to argue that Seal Shield’s use of the LIFEPROOF mark is merely descriptive while at the same time maintaining a federal registration for that same mark that is inherently distinctive and suggestive; however, this demonstrates that the way you use mark is a key component on whether a mark will obtain trademark protection.

This morning, the United States Supreme Court heard the long-anticipated oral argument in the Lee v. Tam trademark dispute. The issue in the case, as reported on the SCOTUS blog, is as follows:

“Whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which provides that no trademark shall be refused registration on account of its nature unless, inter alia, it ‘[c]onsists of . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute’ is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

Supreme Court
Copyright: mesutdogan / 123RF Stock Photo

Stated more simply, the issue facing the Supreme Court is whether section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which bars the registration of disparaging trademarks, is constitutional. The Supreme Court is now primed to make that decision, which will not only have an impact on the Lee v. Tam dispute but also the Washington Redskins dispute and many others.

In making that decision, the justices will consider the parties’ oral argument and briefing as well as the numerous amicus briefs filed by numerous third party organizations and individuals interested in the outcome of the Lee v. Tam dispute. Demonstrating the significance of this dispute, numerous of the justices during oral argument today asked pointed questions to the attorneys representing the parties, particularly to the attorney arguing on behalf of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (in favor of the Lanham Act’s current prohibition). Today’s oral argument started and ended with questions related to differences in trademark law and copyright law and included questions on a whole range of topics relevant to section 2(a), its constitutionality, and its implications.

The Supreme Court will issue an order in the case later this year. Additional background regarding this dispute and the related Washington Redskins dispute can be found in prior blog posts as part of this blog’s ongoing coverage of developments in this landmark dispute.

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.

The ongoing battle before the United States Supreme Court regarding the ability to register disparaging trademarks, prior details of which can be found in earlier blog posts here, here, and here, is heating up with a recent flurry of amicus brief filings. Earlier this month, the USPTO filed its opening brief in the case involving the rock band The Slants pending before the Supreme Court, urging the Court to uphold section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the section that bans the registration of disparaging trademarks, and explaining why it believes the ban is not a restriction on free speech. Following that submission, numerous other groups have filed amicus briefs taking various positions on the issue.

The Native Americans who petitioned to cancel the Washington Redskins’ trademark registrations filed an amicus brief in favor of the USPTO’s position and arguing that there is no right under the First Amendment to use a disparaging trademark to silence others. Other Native American organizations also filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the USPTO and find section 2(a) of the Lanham Act constitutional in light of the government’s incentive to discourage discriminatory conduct. A collection of bar associations filed an amicus brief seeking the same result. The Washington Redskins, on the other hand, are expected to file an amicus brief arguing the opposite–in favor of allowing registration of allegedly disparaging trademarks.

American Bar Association Stamp
Copyright: alzam / 123RF Stock Photo

The American Bar Association (“ABA”) filed a procedurally interesting amicus brief, in which it declined to take a position on whether section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is constitutional and instead focused on a procedural issue. The ABA argued that if the Supreme Court holds that disparaging marks are not registerable (i.e. that section 2(a) is constitutional), it should also hold that such marks are still enforceable under the common law and the federal unfair competition provision of the Lanham Act. The ABA believes that the Federal Circuit’s underlying decision is too vague on this point and that it should be clarified at the Supreme Court level. Were the Supreme Court to follow the ABA’s thinking, the implication may be that trademark users (including The Slants and the Washington Redskins) continue to use disparaging marks but rely upon common law protection or federal unfair competition protection for enforcement purposes.

Other amicus briefs have also been filed with the Supreme Court and can be read on the SCOTUS blog website.  The Slants’ brief is forthcoming, and a decision from the Court is not expected until next year.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, like many other major sports organizations, does not shy away from enforcing its trademarks. In addition to enforcing use of the words “Olympic,” “Olympics,” and “Olympiad” and any use of the interlocking rings logo, the Olympic Committee also enforces the use of names and years in the particular convention used by the Olympics (e.g. “Sochi2014” or “Rio2016”).  For example, last year the Olympic Committee sued an individual who had registered 177 websites using the Olympic Committee’s naming convention.  In addition, the Olympic Committee aggressively pursues users of its naming convention and other trademarks as hashtags on social media websites (such as #Rio2016 and #TeamUSA).  This year, a Minnesota company who sought to post about the 2016 Olympics on social media pages filed a declaratory judgment against the Olympic Committee in an attempt to assert its right to do so.  That suit has not been resolved and has instead been plagued by a recent procedural dispute.

Although the Olympic Committee may not always be successful in all of its trademark enforcement efforts, the Olympic Committee shows no sign of letting up. One reason may be that the Olympic Committee has more trademark protection under the Lanham Act than other organizations.  In fact, under the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1978, the Olympic Committee has the exclusive right to use some of its trademarks even where another’s use does not result in a likelihood of customer confusion. This is different than other enforcers of trademarks, who are required to show that another’s use of a trademark (or variation thereof) results in a likelihood of confusion.  Since the Olympic Committee is not required to jump over that particular hurdle, it arguably has a unique ability to enforce certain of its trademarks.