U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO)

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.

The newest NHL franchise, set to debut in Las Vegas next year, might be considering other names for the team after the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) rejected the hockey team’s proposed trademark, “VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS”.

In an Office Action issued this week (Dec. 7, 2016), an examining attorney preliminary rejected the mark “VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS” because it was too similar and likely to be confused with the mark used by the College of Saint Rose, “GOLDEN KNIGHTS OF THE COLLEGE OF SAINT ROSE”.

Interestingly, the College of Saint Rose (Albany, NY) doesn’t even have a sanctioned hockey team!

In a statement released following the issue of the Office Action, the franchise said the following:

“There are countless examples of college sports teams and professional sports teams with coexisting names, including Vegas Golden Knights and Clarkson Golden Knights, UCLA Bruins and Boston Bruins, U of Miami Hurricanes and Carolina Hurricanes, etc. We will plan on making these arguments and others in our detailed written response to the office action which must be filed by June 7, 2017.

Office actions like these are not at all unusual, and we will proceed with the help of outside counsel in preparing a response to this one.”

The Office Action also required the franchise to “disclaim” the word “VEGAS” as being too geographically descriptive. Since the team will be playing in Las Vegas, and “VEGAS” is included in the trademark, that portion of the mark impermissibly describes the services and cannot be protected as part of the mark.

Many trademark applicants receive office actions (rejection letters) from the USPTO, and this is merely a preliminary refusal to register the mark. The franchise’s response to the USPTO’s Office Action, which is due in six months, will likely set out the franchise’s position on why it should be allowed to register its mark, regardless of the College of Saint Rose’s mark. The arguments could range from arguments regarding dissimilarities in the marks or the consumers of the marks to the existence of a co-existence agreement.

Team owner Bill Foley has previously said that Clarkson College and the University of Central Florida – both of which are also known as the Golden Knights – consented to his team using the name. Foley has not said whether he attempted to get consent from the College of Saint Rose.

Co-existence agreements (i.e. agreements that both parties can use the marks) are typical, and submitting evidence of such an agreement to the USPTO often gets a proposed mark registered.

Whatever the arguments the franchise may have, individuals and companies alike should remember to conduct thorough due diligence before attempting to register a mark—and before spending significant resources promoting a mark. This will help identify potential conflicts to a registration and use of a mark, allowing for, if necessary, the modification of the mark or the development consent co-existence agreements to avoid office actions or infringement claims.

This is a developing story, so stay tuned for further updates.

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.

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
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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 word “cars” is a synonym for “automobiles” (go figure!). But in the field of “software for capturing road data and determining safe curve speeds for automobiles, as well as hardware for capturing telemetry and road data,” the word “cars” as a trademark impermissibly describes the goods and services in that field, according to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The Board recently affirmed a Trademark Examining Attorney’s refusal to register the CARS mark as a result.

When a mark is used on or in connection with goods or services, the mark cannot be “merely descriptive” of those goods or services under the Lanham Act. “Merely descriptive” means the mark immediately gives the viewer information about some characteristic of the goods or services with which the mark is used.

“Suggestive” marks, on the other hand, don’t directly describe the goods or services. Those marks are allowed because they require some imagination or thought by the consumer to realize what’s being offered (e.g., SWEETARTS for candy).

The Board analyzes only the identification of goods and services in the application and not what the record before the Board reveals about the goods and services.

In affirming the CARS cancelled registration, the Board considered evidence establishing that “safe curve speed determinations are done for cars, and that cars often are used to gather the necessary information for such determinations, in that hardware and software installed in cars driven over the roads at issue collect the information.” Other companies in that field would use the term “cars” to describe their services in relation to curve speed determinations. The Board found that the Applicant even used the description “for automobiles” in its application – a signal that “cars” is a major part of describing curve speed determinations.

The Board was also persuaded by evidence showing that the word “cars” is generally used in the automobile software field, noting three other similar software’s websites used “car” and “cars” in describing software which collected data on a car’s speed while it travelled or monitored engine performance and functionality.

The Board rejected the Applicant’s argument that CARS constituted “a complete, indivisible hardware and software unit” used by state and local governments to gauge speed data because that description never made it to the actual application, so the Board could not consider that description.

The Board also dismissed the Applicant’s “double entendre” argument that CARS was an acronym for “Curve Advisory Reporting System.” The Applicant failed to submit evidence that consumers actually knew that CARS meant anything but a synonym for automobiles, and the application only included the CARS mark and not the words in the acronym. The Board could only assess the meaning of the mark from the perspective of what the consumer actually sees – CARS.

The Board concluded that consumers would see CARS and understand that the features of the hardware and software involve cars and are used in cars, making the CARS mark merely descriptive and un-registerable as a trademark.

Potential applicants should come up with marks that are at least suggestive and not descriptive of the products and services listed in the application. While a suggestive mark is stronger and more registerable, a descriptive mark that has acquired distinctiveness may also be registered.

For considerations in selecting a mark, visit the International Trademark Association (INTA) page on developing a list of potential trademarks.

Randall J. Collins is an Intellectual Property Associate in Fox Rothschild’s Philadelphia office.

When is a trademark not a trademark?  When it no longer performs the source identification function for which it was adopted.  In a recent decision of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Board cancelled the trademark registration (and refused a currently pending application) for the logo “I♥DC” covering various merchandise ranging from clothing to tote bags to stuffed animals.

I (Heart) DC 1

I (Heart) DC 2

As grounds for the cancellation, the Board found that the mark no longer served its purpose of identifying the source of the goods, but instead was perceived as an expression of enthusiasm rather than a source indicator for the goods. In finding the wording no longer functioned as a trademark, the Board relied upon widespread ornamental use of the logo by third parties for a long period of time and evidence showed that consumers associated the slogan “as an expression of enthusiasm, affection or affiliation with respect to the city of Washington, D.C.” – even despite extensive use of the slogan on product hang tags (traditional indicators of trademark use).  Here the Board went so far as to recognize that many other “I ♥…” expressions also fail to function as a trademark (but instead simply imply an expression of enthusiasm).

Of course, the trademark owner did herself no favors, admitting that she did not create the design, that she was aware of other third party vendors using the slogan when she originally filed; that her rational for filing the application was to prevent copying of the products affixed (not necessarily the trademark); and when asked what the logo meant, she responded that “they love D.C” and that the customers buy the goods “to remember that they’ve been there”.  All candid responses, and all overwhelming support for a finding that “I♥DC” failed to function as a trademark.

Curiously, while no love exists for I♥DC trademarks, some 200 miles up I-95, we find ourselves in an alternate universe, where I♥NY has for decades stood as the focal marketing piece and perhaps one of the most famous brands associated with the State of New York.  In fact, the brand is so well known, aggressively enforced, and strategically licensed, that its owner, the New York State Department of Economic Development has its own website dedicated to the brand and licensing opportunities.  What a difference!

Although the facts overwhelmingly tipped against I♥DC (and its individual owner), the decision raises questions about “I♥[insert geographic location]” trademarks generally.  Don’t they all act as an “expression of enthusiasm, affection or affiliation with respect to the [insert geographic location]” – New York being no different?  And apparently affixing the logo onto hang tags is not enough to show “trademark use”.  So where is the line?

While the New York State Department of Economic Development may withstand challenges based on historic policing efforts, use on a wide range of goods and services, and developing an entire licensing program; owners (public and private) with smaller budgets and shorter histories likely face the same dangers and attacks as I♥DC.  Police your mark, keep ornamental use to a minimum and have a documented history of how you use your mark as an indicator of source of the product, not just as a cute slogan that you love a particular city.  And for those looking to enter the “I♥[insert geographic location]” branding market (whether entrepreneur or local government), check the registry, investigate your marketplace for preexisting use, and study this case for what to do (and not to do) in your use of the brand – as opportunities exist as both first adopter or simply on the coattails of prior owners failing to treat their brand as anything more than a slogan showing “enthusiasm” for the location.

rock band illustration
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This morning, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the trademark dispute involving the rock band, The Slants.  The United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) previously denied The Slants’ trademark registration on the basis of section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which prohibits the registration of disparaging trademarks.  In 2015, the Federal Circuit held that section 2(a) is itself an unconstitutional restriction on the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.  The USPTO appealed that decision to the Supreme Court earlier this year, and the Supreme Court announced today that it will hear the case, thus signaling that it will determine whether or not the Lanham Act’s prohibition on offensive trademarks is constitutional.

An earlier blog post described the related dispute over whether the Washington Redskins will lose their federally-registered trademarks in the Redskins name.  The Supreme Court has not indicated whether it will also hear the Redskins’ dispute, which is currently pending before the Fourth Circuit.  However, the Supreme Court’s decision regarding The Slants will very likely impact the Redskins’ dispute as well as the USPTO’s registration of other potentially disparaging trademarks.

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.