Are Trademark’s a Medium for Free Speech?: Federal Circuit Considers Whether Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act Violates the First Amendment

Michael Laird, MJLST Staffer

The Federal Circuit recently heard arguments en banc in a case considering the relationship between intellectual property regimes, specifically trademark law, and freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The long-term rule comes from the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals—the predecessor to the Federal Circuit—in the case In re McGinley. 660 F.2d 481 (C.C.P.A. 1981). There, the court held: “with respect to appellant’s First Amendment rights, it is clear that PTO’s refusal to register appellant’s mark [as a trademark] does not affect his right to use it. No conduct is proscribed, and no tangible form of expression is suppressed.” Id. at 484. Under that traditional rule, trademark law was held consistent with the first amendment because an applicant is still permitted to use a mark, whether or not it is trademark eligible. However, that precedent may be at risk.

On Friday, October 3, the Federal Circuit heard arguments for In re Tam on the question of whether § 2(a) of the Lanham Act is consistent with the right of free speech. Section 2(a) bars trademark eligibility for a mark that “consists of or comprises of immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” 28 U.S.C. § 1052(a). In Tam, § 2(a) was the basis for denying trademark registration for “The Slants”, the name of an Asian-American band because of its disparagement of those of Asian descent.

The court appeared to latch on to concerns that the logic of McGinley would be applicable in the copyright regime since rejection of a copyright would also not inhibit the applicant’s right to use that material. The court asked: “would [it] be constitutional and not a first amendment violation if Congress enacted a statute that said, ‘we’re going to regulate Copyrights and not allow copyright registration to issue to scandalous, immoral, or disparaging copyrights?’” Recording of Oral Arguments, In re Tam, No. 2014-1203 at 39:13 (Fed. Cir. October 2, 2015). The Government conceded, and Court appeared to agree that Congress could not bar disparaging art from copyright registration, as it does with trademarks. See id. at 39:33.

If a work cannot be denied copyright registration because the government concludes the work is disparaging, then some distinction between a copyright and trademark must exist for the government to reject a trademark on that basis. The Government was mostly unsuccessful in providing a means to distinguish the two regimes. The court, however, discussed a few possibilities.

First, the nature of speech in copyrighted material differs from the marks which are eligible for trademark protection. Copyrightable material may involve fundamental political speech and other private speech, which is protected under a heightened scrutiny by the first amendment. Id. at 41:30. Conversely, trademarks, as a means to associate the producer of goods and a brand or logo, constitutes commercial speech.

Second, as one judge stated: “the distinction that could be made is that in copyright, if the government has these limitations it’s so coercive that it essentially…prevents you from [certain] speech. Whereas the trademark realm, although it takes away some benefits of federal registration…it’s not so coercive that the restriction is a burden on free speech.” Id. at 44:30. This argument relates to McGinley, since independent of whether a trademark is granted or denied, the mark owner has the right to use his or her mark in public. In the copyright realm however, the logic of McGinley fails because the denial of a copyright might actually chill speech because of the risk that it will be misappropriated by someone else.

Third, the court differentiated the purpose of the copyright and trademark regimes: “isn’t a copyright a forum for the expression of the arts…whereas a trademark goes to the very heart of stability in the marketplace?” Id. at 5:23. Like a distinction between the nature of a trademark and copyright, the purpose of the systems diverge. Copyright is inherently protective of speech generally. Yet, most trademarks do not concern traditional speech, but protecting an association between the producer of a good and a brand or other mark.

Whether any argument will persuade the court that trademark law is distinct from copyright in some way that permits a disparagement bar to trademark registration remains to be seen. Notably, the court need not resolve the issue, if it were to determine that § 2(a) should be upheld or rejected based on the whether a trademark constitutes private, public, or commercial speech. Either way, the implications of the court’s ruling could impact another major ongoing disparagement case concerning the Washington Redskins’ trademark which is being appealed in the Fourth Circuit. If you are interested in listening to the argument in full, you can find a copy here.

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