U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Continuing my ongoing coverage of the Lanham Act’s disparaging trademark ban, the Federal Circuit ruled today that the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2017 ruling striking down the ban on disparaging trademarks also applies to the ban on “immoral” and “scandalous” trademarks set forth in section 2(a) of the Lanham Act.  Applying First Amendment free speech rights, the Federal Circuit overturned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s refusal to allow a trademark applicant to register the term “Fuct” for his apparel brand.  Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding disparaging trademarks, the USPTO had apparently continued to take the position that it would not register immoral or scandalous trademarks.  The Federal Circuit has now rejected that position, finding that the ban on immoral and scandalous trademarks is unconstitutional just like the ban on disparaging trademarks.

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.

There has been much debate and discussion over whether the Redskins—Washington D.C.’s professional football team in the National Football League—should voluntarily change their name under the view that it disparages Native Americans.  In May, the Washington Post reported that a poll of Native Americans across the country found that nine in ten Native Americans are not offended by the Redskins name.

American football
Copyright: tiero / 123RF Stock Photo

Regardless of what any poll may or may not suggest, there is also a separate debate on this issue—whether the Redskins should lose their federally-registered trademarks in the Redskins name.  The basis for this debate is section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which bars registration of disparaging words or phrases.  And central to the debate is the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free speech.

In 2015, when a federal district court affirmed the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) cancellation of a number of the Redskins trademarks, it seemed almost certain that the Redskins would lose their trademarks.  But then the Federal Circuit ruled in a separate matter—related to the rock band the Slants—that section 2(a) is itself an unconstitutional restriction on the right to free speech.

The decision related to the Slants was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and now the question of whether section 2(a) can prohibit the Redskins trademarks may be headed to the same place.  Initially, the Redskins filed an appeal of the cancellation of their trademarks to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  But in April, shortly after the Slants case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the Redskins filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to hear the case before the Fourth Circuit issues a decision in light of the fact that the Supreme Court may hear the issue in the case involving the Slants. Although the Redskins team apparently believes that both cases should be decided by the same court, particularly given the sums of money it has spent building the Redskins brand, the government disagrees that the Supreme Court should hear the case.  According to the New York Times, the Supreme Court only occasionally allows such a “certiorari before judgment.”

The outcomes of this case and the Slants case, whether ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, may have a significant impact on the ability to register disparaging or offensive trademarks in the future.  If section 2(a) is found by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, the USPTO would likely begin registering trademarks widely considered offensive or disparaging.