Pattishall IP Blog

December 22, 2015

Federal Circuit Holds: “Disparagement” Clause of Lanham Act Violates the First Amendment

Filed under: Constitution, TM Registration, Trademark (General), TTAB — Tags: , , , , , — Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP @ 5:13 pm

Widmaier_Uli_1 F LRBy: Uli Widmaier

I.  The Court’s Holding:

Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 USC § 1052(a), provides that trademarks that “disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols” shall not be federally registered (emphasis added).

On December 22, 2015, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, ruling en banc, held that this clause “is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment.” See In re Simon Shiao Tam, No. 2014-1203, slip op. at 62 (Dec. 22, 2015). Based on this holding, the Court vacated the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s determination that the mark THE SLANTS for “Entertainment in the nature of live performances by a musical band” is unregistrable as disparaging people of Asian descent.

II.   Practical Consequences:

The Federal Circuit is the statutorily designated Court of Appeals for all USPTO actions, see 15 USC § 1071(a). By holding that Section 2(a)’s disparagement clause is unconstitutional, In re Tam necessarily invalidates not only that clause, but also all USPTO precedents and rules that are based on in. Therefore, In re Tam has several immediate practical consequences:

  • Any disparagement grounds in currently pending Office Actions are no longer valid.
  • Any disparagement claims in currently pending opposition actions or petitions for cancellation must be withdrawn or dismissed.
  • No future trademark applications can be refused registration on disparagement grounds.
  • No future opposition or cancellation actions can validly be based on disparagement claims.

This describes the situation today. But it may not be the end of the matter. The issue may be bound for Supreme Court review, particularly given that a circuit split may emerge in short order. The famous REDSKINS case, in which the Board used the disparagement clause to cancel six trademark registrations of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, No. 1-14-CV-01043-GBL, 2015 WL 4096277 (E.D. Va. July 8, 2015), is currently on appeal before the Fourth Circuit. The case turns in substantial part on whether Section 2(a)’s disparagement clause violates the First Amendment. If the Fourth Circuit disagrees with the Federal Circuit’s holding and decides that there is no constitutional violation, then the Supreme Court is likely to step in and resolve the split between the Fourth and Federal Circuits on this important question of constitutional law.

If the Supreme Court were to agree with the Federal Circuit and hold that the disparagement clause is unconstitutional, then the practical implications listed above remain as they are at the moment. But if the Supreme Court were to hold that the disparagement clause is not unconstitutional, then the clause—and the USPTO regulations that depend on it—would be reinstated. What would that mean to any “disparaging” trademark registrations that were issued in the meantime? The answer is that such registrations would potentially be subject to cancellation on disparagement grounds.

III.   Takeaway:

For the time being, the practical takeaway from the Federal Circuit’s In re Tam decision is this. Trademark owners are now free to register disparaging marks, since the USPTO cannot refuse to register them on the ground of disparagement. And third parties cannot oppose applications or seek to cancel registrations on the ground of disparagement.

But any resulting registrations remain at some risk for cancellation, since the Supreme Court may well decide to review this issue. If so, the Supreme Court may overrule the Federal Circuit’s holding, whereupon the disparagement clause and the USPTO rules and precedents based on it would be reinstated.

Furthermore, a disparagement attack (should it be reinstated) cannot be averted via incontestability, since Section 14(3) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1064(3), expressly permits incontestable registrations to be challenged on Section 2(a) grounds.

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Uli Widmaier is a partner with Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP, a leading intellectual property law firm based in Chicago, Illinois.  Pattishall McAuliffe represents both plaintiffs and defendants in trademark, copyright, and unfair competition trials and appeals. The firm advises its clients on a broad range of domestic and international intellectual property matters, including brand protection, Internet, and e-commerce issues.  Uli’s practice focuses on domestic and international trademark, copyright, trade dress and Internet law and litigation.

 

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July 8, 2015

REDSKINS Trademark Registrations Still Canceled After Appeal to Federal Court

Filed under: Constitution, Litigation, TM Registration — Tags: , , — Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP @ 12:45 pm

PB LRby Phillip Barengolts, Partner

Today, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has upheld an administrative ruling that canceled federal trademark registrations for the REDSKINS nickname of the Washington football team despite the team’s constitutional and other challenges. Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, Case No. 14-cv-01043 (E.D. Va. July 8, 2015). [1]

Last year, on June 18, 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“TTAB”) canceled six of Washington’s federal registrations for the trademark REDSKINS because the name disparages Native Americans.[2] The team appealed the ruling to federal court. It argued, essentially, that Section 2(a) of the Federal Trademark Act (the “Lanham Act”), which prohibits the federal registration of potentially disparaging trademarks, is unconstitutional and that the Native American petitioners did not prove that the REDSKINS trademark is, in fact, disparaging. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the Eastern District of Virginia sided with the Native American petitioners on all counts.

The decision highlights an important aspect of trademark practice. As the Court admonished the parties, this case concerns the right of the Washington football team to register the REDSKINS trademark– not the team’s right to use the mark. The TTAB also highlighted this point in its decision, but mass media, and even many attorneys, confused this point.

The rights conferred by registration are important and valuable , but the TTAB only has the right to decide whether a trademark may be registered, it has no authority to stop the use of a trademark. Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, at issue in this dispute, only applies to registration of trademarks. As the Court stated, “Thus, regardless of this Court’s ruling, [the team] can still use the Redskins Marks in commerce.”

As a practical matter, however, a trademark owner who is not permitted to register its preferred mark often chooses not to use that mark, but, ultimately, it is the trademark owner’s choice. This point is crucial for the Court’s decision and crucial for an understanding of when and why to bring an action before the TTAB.[3]

As a result of this limited application of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the statute survived the constitutional challenge brought by the team. In particular, the Court found that Section 2(a) does not even implicate the First Amendment precisely because it does not prohibit the use of a trademark, and therefore, does not prohibit or impinge on any speech.

The Court also found that the federal trademark registration program is government speech under the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Walker v. Tex. Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2239 (2015).[4] Basically, this means that “the federal government may determine the contents and limits of programs that it creates and manages.” The Court also ruled that the term “may disparage” in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is not impermissibly vague – generally or as applied to the team. Finally, the TTAB’s ruling was not an impermissible taking because a trademark registration is not a property interest, as opposed to the underlying trademark itself, which is.

As to the team’s challenges to the ruling that the term REDSKINS may disparage Native Americans, the Court found that evidence found in dictionaries, scholarly and media references, and statements from Native Americans were sufficient to uphold the TTAB’s ruling.

In the previous iteration of this battle, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that laches barred the Native Americans’ suit. Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo, 415 F.3d 44 (D.C. Cir. 2005).[5] Here, for reasons not worth getting into, the District Court found that laches did not apply.

Undoubtedly, the team will appeal this decision to the Fourth Circuit. So, the saga of the REDSKINS trademark registration continues.

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Phillip Barengolts is a partner with Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP, a leading intellectual property law firm based in Chicago, Illinois. Pattishall McAuliffe represents both plaintiffs and defendants in trademark, false advertising, copyright, trade secret and unfair competition trials and appeals, and advises its clients on a broad range of domestic and international intellectual property matters, including brand protection, Internet, and advertising issues. Mr. Barengolts’ practice focuses on litigation, transactions, and counseling in domestic and international trademark, trade dress, advertising, unfair competition, trade secret, Internet, and copyright law. He teaches trademark and copyright litigation at John Marshall Law School, and co-authored Trademark and Copyright Litigation, published by Lexis Publishing.

Footnotes:

[1] The full 70-page opinion can be found here: http://www.pattishall.com/pdf/PFI%20v%20Blackhorse%20Decision.pdf

[2] Further background and earlier coverage on the TTAB decision can be found here: https://blog.pattishall.com/2014/06/18/redskins-trademark-registrations-canceled-after-8-more-years-of-litigation/.

[3] The recent decision in B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Indus., Inc., 135 S. Ct. 1293, 575 U.S. __ (2015), may have changed this calculus. See https://blog.pattishall.com/2015/03/25/supreme-court-holds-that-issues-decided-by-the-ttab-may-be-preclusive-in-federal-court/. The decision can be found here: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=15316530830472719965.

[4] http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=2629371590163032730.

[5] http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=2204191829610278162.

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June 18, 2014

REDSKINS Trademark Registrations Canceled After 8 More Years of Litigation

Filed under: TM Registration, Trademark (General), TTAB — Tags: , , , — Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP @ 3:38 pm

 

PB LRby Phillip Barengolts, Partner, and Kristine A. Bergman, Summer Associate

In the long-running dispute between representatives of Native Americans and Pro-Football, Inc. AKA the Washington Redskins (“Washington”), the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“TTAB”) cancelled six of Washington’s registrations for the mark REDSKINS.[1] It was not the first time the TTAB ruled against Washington, finding that the REDSKINS trademark was disparaging and, therefore, not registrable under Section 2(a) of the Federal Trademark Act.[2] Of course, that has been the nickname of the Washington football team since 1932.

Despite mass media misinterpretation of the implications of this opinion, as the TTAB expressly stated, “This decision concerns only the statutory right to registration under Section 2(a). We lack statutory authority to issue rulings concerning the right to use trademarks.” (emphasis original). This decision does not require the Washington team to change its name. It does not prevent the team from continuing to use the REDSKINS nickname in marketing. It does not affect the team’s ability to license merchandise using the REDSKINS name.[3] Furthermore, it does not prevent the team from suing to enforce its rights in the REDSKINS name against others who may try to use it.[4] It merely prevents the team from enjoying the special protections afforded to an owner of a federal registration.[5]

Ultimately, the TTAB found that the registrations for REDSKINS “were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered…” This finding is remarkable because the original registration for THE REDSKINS issued in 1967.

In its analysis, the TTAB first determined that the term “redskins,” although associated with the football team, had not been “stripped” of its ethnic meaning. Second, the TTAB found that a “substantial composite” of Native Americans were disparaged by the mark. [6] The primary basis for this conclusion was a resolution issued in 1993 by the National Congress of American Indians (“NCAI”), which represented approximately 30 percent of Native Americans during the relevant time. This resolution also was found to be competent evidence of the past views of Native Americans.

The TTAB also revisited Washington’s laches defense, which was discussed in the Harjo case. The TTAB rejected the defense because it “does not apply to a disparagement claim where the disparagement pertains to a group of which the individual petitioner or petitioners comprise one or more members.” Laches is an equitable defense and, therefore, the TTAB highlighted that “it is difficult to justify a balancing of equities where a registrant’s financial interest is weighed against human dignity.” Moreover, the TTAB noted that laches is inapplicable in cases presenting a broader public policy concern. Finally, the TTAB stated that, even on the merits, the defense could not stand because there was no showing that the petitioners had unreasonably delayed in bringing the petition after each reached the age of majority or that there was economic prejudice to Washington due to the delay.

Unusually for a TTAB decision, there was a dissent. Lest the dissenting judge be deemed insensitive, the primary criticism levelled at the majority was that the evidence presented by the petitioners was insufficient to prove that “redskins” was a disparaging term in 1967 (and when the subsequent trademark registrations issued). For purposes of the eventual appeal, the dissent has some merit because the evidence relied on by the petitioners was the same as that relied on by the Harjo petitioners – and which was deemed insufficient by the D.C. Circuit to support the TTAB’s original decision finding REDSKINS disparaging.

Despite pressure from the Obama administration, Washington team owner Dan Snyder has refused to change the team’s name.[7] So, stay tuned for the eventual appeal.

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Phillip Barengolts is a partner with Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP, a leading intellectual property law firm based in Chicago, Illinois. Pattishall McAuliffe represents both petitioners and defendants in trademark, copyright, trade secret and unfair competition trials and appeals, and advises its clients on a broad range of domestic and international intellectual property matters, including brand protection, Internet, and e-commerce issues. Mr. Barengolts’ practice focuses on litigation, transactions, and counseling in domestic and international trademark, trade dress, unfair competition, trade secret, Internet, and copyright law. He teaches trademark and copyright litigation at John Marshall Law School, and co-authored Trademark and Copyright Litigation, published by Lexis Publishing.

Kristine A. Bergman is a summer associate with Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP.

 

[1] http://ttabvue.uspto.gov/ttabvue/v?pno=92046185&pty=CAN&eno=199.

[2] The original petition to cancel the REDSKINS trademark registrations was brought on September 10, 1992, and the petitioners prevailed before the TTAB. See Harjo v. Pro Football, Inc., 30 U.S.P.Q.3d 1828 (TTAB 1994). The United States District Court for the District of Columbia reversed the TTAB’s original decision, which was upheld by D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, that ruling relied on the defense of laches because the petitioners had waited too long to bring the petition to cancel after reaching the age of majority — the issue of disparagement on the merits was not resolved.

[3] Unless a specific license had a requirement that the mark be registered, which the NFL undoubtedly would not have agreed to, given the long pendency of this objection.

[4] But see http://tushnet.blogspot.com/2014/06/unregistrable-means-unprotectable-by.html. The decision discussed by Prof. Tushnet here addresses very different facts, but it raises an interesting potential defense to any infringement claims Washington may bring over the REDSKINS mark in the future, if the TTAB decisions is upheld on appeal, of course.

[5] Perhaps of greatest importance in the context of merchandising would be the unavailability of a claim of counterfeiting, for which registration is required.

[6] Of note, the TTAB stated that a “substantial composite” need not be a majority and ultimately found that “thirty percent is without doubt a substantial composite.”

[7] U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Cancels Redskins Trademark, Huff. Post (June 18, 2014 at 10:22 A.M), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/18/redskins-trademark-canceled_n_5507169.html.

 

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