Just when we thought the unconstitutionality of the ban on disparaging and scandalous trademarks had been resolved, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) is shaking things up.  As a reminder, and as previously covered on this blog here and here, there were two important rulings in 2017 related to the trademark ban set forth in section 2(a) of the Lanham Act.  First, in June 2017, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the disparaging trademark ban is unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s free speech clause and later, in December 2017, the Federal Circuit found that the Supreme Court’s ruling also applies to the ban on immoral and scandalous trademarks.

Refusing to accept the latter ruling, the USPTO has now petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Federal Circuit’s decision and to essentially reinstate the ban on scandalous trademarks.  Although the unconstitutionality of the disparaging trademark ban is settled law from the Supreme Court, the USPTO views the scandalous trademark ban as different and as not violative of the First Amendment.  Whether the Supreme Court will hear the case and will agree with the USPTO remains to be seen.

 

When a trademark owner/licensor files for bankruptcy, there is an open question as to whether the licensee of the trademark can legally continue use of the mark or whether the trademark owner/licensor can reject its obligations under the licensing agreement and effectively prohibit the licensee’s continued use of the mark.  When it comes to the licensing of patents and copyrights, the question is already closed: Congress created an exception in U.S. bankruptcy law that allows licensees of such intellectual property to retain their rights even after a licensing agreement has been rejected by the intellectual property owner who has filed for bankruptcy.  However, whether purposely or not, Congress did not mention trademarks in the exception, thereby leading to the current question.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether to grant certiorari in a case that would answer this question and resolve a circuit-split on the issue.  That case is Mission Products Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, LLC N/K/A Old Cold LLC, which was decided by the First Circuit early this year in favor of the trademark licensor, Tempnology.  The First Circuit held that Tempnology’s rejection of its licensing agreement with Mission Products Holdings caused the latter to lose its trademark rights under the parties’ agreement in light of Tempnology’s bankruptcy.  Now Mission Products Holdings, Inc., the trademark licensee, has filed a petition seeking review by the Supreme Court and a ruling that a trademark licensee’s rights to use a trademark cannot be revoked upon the trademark owner/licensor filing for bankruptcy.

The International Trademark Association (INTA) has already filed an amicus brief asking that the Supreme Court take the case and resolve the dispute in favor of trademark licensees, who make significant investments in their businesses using the licensed marks.  According to INTA’s brief, trademarks “are the most widely used form of registered intellectual property” and a ruling in favor of trademark licensees “enhances the value of trademark licenses and promotes the stability of the trademark system.”  Tempnology’s response to Mission Product Holdings’ petition is due in early September, and the case is set for conference in late September, after which the justices may decide to hear the case (or not).

Yesterday the United States Supreme Court announced that it was granting the petition for writ of certiorari in the copyright infringement case previously discussed on this blog here and here.  The case is Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC and involves the question of when a copyright holder can properly file a copyright infringement lawsuit.

34126235 - copyrightCurrently there is a circuit-split as to whether the term “registration” as used in the Copyright Act includes the mere filing of a registration application or whether it requires that the Copyright Office have actually approved or denied the registration application.  The plaintiff in the case, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp., filed suit before the Copyright Office had approved or denied its application, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of its complaint on that basis.  The United States Solicitor General, who the Supreme Court invited to weigh in earlier this year, urged the Court to take the case and uphold the Eleventh Circuit’s position.

The Supreme Court is now poised to resolve the dispute and to give copyright holders clarity as to whether they may file suit merely after filing an application for a copyright registration.

Justice Anthony Kennedy of the United States Supreme Court announced his retirement yesterday, after having served three decades on the bench.  Justice Kennedy is known for casting the swing vote in a number of major cases and has drafted opinions on a myriad of hotly-contested issues, including LGBT rights and the First Amendment.  His retirement places President Trump in a position to select a conservative justice that will shift the ideological balance of the Court for years to come.

How this will impact future rulings in advertising, trademark, and other intellectual property cases remains to be seen, but we can certainly expect a more conservative slant from the bench going forward.

In what may be the final installment of a series of blog posts related to the Lanham Act’s disparaging trademark ban and its effect on the Washington Redskins’ trademarks, the Fourth Circuit finally issued a decision in the Redskins’ case.  When the United States Supreme Court ruled last June in a case involving the Slants rock band that section 2(a) of the Lanham Act was unconstitutional, the fate of the Washington Redskins’ trademarks became clear.  But it took until yesterday for the Fourth Circuit to officially weigh in.

68951198 – washington redskins nfl team on white

In yesterday’s simple one-page decision, the Fourth Circuit vacated the lower court’s ruling (which affirmed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s earlier order) that six of the team’s trademarks violated section 2(a) of the Lanham Act.  In other words, as expected, the Fourth Circuit issued an order in line with the Supreme Court’s decision that the disparaging trademark ban is unconstitutional and cannot bar the registration of an allegedly disparaging trademark.  As part of its ruling, the Fourth Circuit dispensed with oral argument and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision.  Given that the remand is merely a formality at this point, the Washington Redskins may now finally feel closure on the issue (though in true procedural fashion, the Fourth Circuit’s Notice of Judgment does confirm that there is 90 days to file a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court).

To trace this blog’s history of this interesting trademark issue, check out blog posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

This post follows up on my prior blog post regarding the case pending at the United States Supreme Court involving the question of when a copyright holder can properly file a copyright infringement lawsuit.  The petitioner, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp., has framed the issue in its petition for certiorari as follows:  “Whether ‘registration of [a] copyright claim has been made’ within the meaning of § 411(a) when the copyright holder delivers the required application, deposit, and fee to the Copyright Office, as the Fifth and Ninth Circuits have held, or only once the Copyright Office acts on that application, as the Tenth Circuit and, in the decision below, the Eleventh Circuit have held.”

34126235 - copyrightFollowing the parties’ respective briefing as to whether the Supreme Court should grant certiorari and thus review the case, the Supreme Court has now invited the United States Solicitor General to submit a brief as well.  In other words, the Supreme Court is interested in the Solicitor General’s view on the issue.  A recent American Bar Association article explains that the Supreme Court has increasingly requested the views of the Solicitor General in order to assess how the United States’ interests are being affected by a lower court’s decision and to determine whether the case is important enough or a circuit split is developed enough to warrant the Supreme Court’s review.  This may mean that the Supreme Court is considering granting certiorari in this case, but it will likely be some time before we learn of that.

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.

Last month, a journalism collective called the Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. (“Fourth Estate”) petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review a decision issued by the Eleventh Circuit involving the question of when a copyright holder can properly file a copyright infringement lawsuit.  At issue is 17 U.S.C. § 411(a), which states that “no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.”  Although copyright holders obtain copyright protection immediately upon the creation of a copyrightable work, copyright holders cannot initiate a lawsuit without satisfying the “registration” requirement set forth in 17 U.S.C. § 411(a).  According to a Copyright Office circular, this means that “registration (or refusal) is necessary to enforce the exclusive right of copyright through litigation.”

34126235 - copyrightHowever, the Circuit Courts are split as to whether “registration” as used in 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) includes the mere filing of a registration application or whether it requires that the Copyright Office have actually approved or denied the registration application.  Earlier this year, the Eleventh Circuit held in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com that “registration” requires the latter.  Because Fourth Estate had applied for copyrights that had not yet been decided upon by the Copyright Office, the Eleventh Circuit held that Fourth Estate could not properly bring its copyright infringement lawsuit against Wall-Street.com, a news website that Fourth Estate claims kept its news stories live after Fourth Estate’s membership was cancelled.  Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Fourth Estate’s complaint.

Now, Fourth Estate asks the Supreme Court to weigh in, reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, and resolve the dispute amongst the Circuit Courts.  In the event the Supreme Court hears the case, copyright holders will finally obtain clarity as to whether they may file suit merely after filing an application for a copyright registration.  On the other hand, if the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, copyright holders will be forced to continue to evaluate which courts are, or may be, favorable on the issue.  If copyright holders are stuck with filing in an unfavorable court, they must evaluate the risks of waiting to file a lawsuit (and potentially paying for an expedited registration) or of jeopardizing dismissal of their complaint.

On November 1, 2017, the Supreme Court distributed the case for conference on November 21, 2017.  After that conference, we should know whether the Supreme Court has granted certiorari, and will thus hear the case, or whether the Circuit Court split will remain for the foreseeable future.

In direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down the constitutionality of section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which as enacted barred the registration of disparaging trademarks, there is reason to believe that offensive trademark registration applications are on the rise.

According to Reuters, there were at least nine new applications filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) between the June 19, 2017 Supreme Court ruling and the end of July 2017.  Such marks include versions of the N-word, a swastika symbol, and other offensive terms/phrases.  For example, Snowflake Enterprises LLC has filed multiple trademark applications for offensive marks, examples of which can be found on the PTO’s website (a version of the N-word can be seen here and a swastika symbol can be seen here). Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, it’s likely that the PTO would have outright rejected such filings as they had with similar filings in the past.  But the PTO is now under new guidance—that trademark applicants are protected by the free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  According to Reuters, the PTO told its staff a few days after the June 19 Supreme Court ruling that they could no longer use section 2(a) of the Lanham Act to reject a trademark application for a disparaging trademark.

The full effect of the June 19, 2017 Supreme Court ruling remains to be seen, but the evidence to date suggests that applications for offensive trademarks will increase and that the PTO will be forced to approve them if the marks otherwise qualify for trademark registration.  However, if the applicant does not establish actual use of the offensive mark or does not use the offensive mark as a source identifier, the PTO can still reject the application.  Thus, with the exception of the once-applied disparaging trademark ban, the PTO will continue to apply the same standards to trademark applications as it has in the past.

Prior Above the Fold blog posts explaining the Supreme Court’s June 19, 2017 ruling in more detail can be found here and here.

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.