Archive for February, 2020

The End of the Disparagement Clause

Saturday, February 8th, 2020

Under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, there are certain types of marks that may never be registered with the USPTO. Last week, one of the posts discussed deceptive marks, under Section 2(a), which is one type of mark that may not be registered. Under 15 U.S.C. §1052(a) other marks that may not be registered include those which consist or are comprised 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; or a geographical indication which, when used on or in connection with wines or spirits, identifies a place other than the origin of the goods …”

The Disparagement Clause was brought into question in the case Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017).  In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Disparagement Clause violates the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech Clause and that it is no longer a valid ground on which to refuse registration or cancel a registration.

In 2015, Simon Tam applied to register his trademark THE SLANTS for the name of his Asian-American band. The registration was denied under §2(a) of the Lanham Act because it was considered disparaging to those of Asian descent. When determining whether or not a mark is potentially disparaging, an examining attorney conducts a two-prong test, (1) The likely meaning of the mark at issue and, “if that meaning is found to refer to identifiable persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols,” the examining attorney will move to the second part of the test, (2) “Whether that meaning may be disparaging to a substantial composite of the referenced group …” If the examiner finds that a “substantial composite, although not necessarily a majority, of the referenced group would find the proposed mark…to be disparaging in the context of contemporary attitudes,” a prima facie case for disparagement is created. At that point, it is the applicant’s burden to prove that the trademark is not disparaging.

Tam argued that he was using the mark to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity. Regardless, his mark was denied, and he appealed to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that affirmed the refusal for registration. Ultimately, Tam appealed to the Supreme Court that concluded that the Disparagement Clause was unconstitutional. The majority found that the clause: “engages in viewpoint-based discrimination, regulates the expressive component of trademarks, and consequently cannot be treated as commercial speech and that the clause is subject to and cannot satisfy strict scrutiny.”(Citation omitted) Justice Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, said: “We have 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.’”

In Matal the central issue was how the public would perceive the potentially offensive mark. While Tam’s goal was to “reclaim” the disparaging phrase, the USPTO originally denied the trademark registration because it was worried that instead of helping dissolve the negative connotation of the term “slant,” it would have the opposite effect for those who identified as Asian American. Something of note that this case has brought to light, is the portion of the two-prong disparagement test which says, “…to be disparaging in the context of contemporary attitudes.” In 2017, 71 years after the Disparagement Clause was written, contemporary attitudes may be shifting and by finding the Disparagement provision a violation of the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech Clause, it can potentially help in contributing to a more liberal marketplace of ideas.

One of the most immediate and potent effects of the Supreme Court’s official ban on the Disparagement Clause under §2(a) of the Lanham Act, was in regard to the Washington Redskins football team. The Washington Redskins, founded in 1932, was originally named the Boston Braves until they relocated to Washington, D.C. and took on their current moniker in 1933. Between 1967 and 1990, the USPTO registered six trademarks affiliated with the Washington Redskins, each trademark containing the term REDSKIN. Since 1992, the registrations, the previous team owners and current owner, Dan Snyder, have been in constant legal battle with Native American groups who’ve opposed the name and contended that it is in fact disparaging. In 2015, a federal judge canceled the trademark registrations and revoked their trademark protections. However, in light of the 2017 Matal decision, in 2018,  the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated the decisions that had previously canceled the Washington NFL team’s federal trademark registrations.

In wake of the Matal decision, the portions of the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP) §1203, that specifically apply to the disparagement provision no longer apply. The USPTO Examination Guide 01-17  provides examination guidance after Matal v. Tam for the Disparagement Clause and was issued on June 26, 2017. The guide states: “Applicants that received an advisory refusal under the disparagement provision and were suspended pursuant to Examination Guide 01-16 will be removed from suspension and examined for any other requirements or refusals. If an application was previously abandoned after being refused registration under the disparagement provision, and is beyond the deadline for filing a petition to revive, a new application may be filed.”

After the official barring of the Disparagement Clause, another trademark case, Iancu v. Brunetti, 139 S. Ct. 2294 (2019), was heard before the Supreme Court. The trademark, FUCT,  was previously deemed unregistrable under §2(a) which bars registration of marks that consist of or comprise immoral or scandalous matter.   On June 24, 2019, the Supreme Court held that the Scandalous Clause violates the First Amendment of the Constitution because it “impermissibly restricts free speech.” Much like the Disparagement Clause, the Supreme Court held that the scandalous provision was unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech Clause because it was facially viewpoint-based. On July 3, 2019, the USPTO issued Examination Guide 2-19 which provides guidance for §2(a)’s Scandalous Marks Provision after Iancu v. Brunetti. The Examination Guide states: “that a mark may consist of or comprise “immoral” or “scandalous” matter is no longer a valid ground on which to refuse registration or cancel a registration.”  As stated by the Harvard Law Review, “If other provisions are invalidated due to their content-based nature, there will be little left for the government to use as a basis for restricting trademarks.” 133 Harv. L. Rev. 292 (2019)


Deceptiveness Cases

Saturday, February 8th, 2020

The last post covered deceptive marks, which are marks that are unregistrable under §2(a) of the Lanham Act. The Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure specifies that “Neither a disclaimer of the deceptive matter nor a claim that is has acquired distinctiveness under §2(f) can obviate a refusal under §2(a) on the ground that the mark consists of or comprises deceptive matter.”  A deceptive mark can be a single deceptive term, a deceptive term within a composite mark which also features non-deceptive elements or a term or portion of a term that suggests a deceptive quality, characteristic, function, composition or use. Deceptive marks can also be marks that falsely portray the material content of a product and marks that are geographically misdescriptive.

As discussed in the post on deceptive marks, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit created a three-prong test to determine whether or not a mark may be deceptive and therefore unregistrable under §2(a) of the Act; see In re Budge Mfg. Co., 857 F.2d 773, 775, 8 USPQ2d 1259, 1260 (Fed. Cir. 1988). If a mark meets the first two prongs of the test, it may be considered deceptively misdescriptive under §2(e)(1) of the Lanham Act. If a mark satisfies all three prongs of the test, it may be considered deceptive. If an examining attorney has found a mark to be deceptive, and therefore unregistrable with the USPTO, an applicant may go before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board on appeal. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board will either affirm the refusal for registration or reverse the decision in favor of the applicant. Below are two recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decisions affirming refusal for registration under §2(a) of the Lanham Act:

In a 2019 non-precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the refusal for registration of the deceptive mark NU DOWN, for pillows and bedding “made in whole or substantial part of synthetic down or down alternatives.” For the first element of the three-prong test, the applicant did not argue that the term DOWN was descriptive and had disclaimed it previously. However, the applicant argued that the mark NU DOWN was not misdescriptive because the term NU could imply something aside from natural down. The Board found that the term “down,” in the dictionary presumptively meant natural down, and if not precisely natural down, something comparable. It was found that when used in commerce, relevant purchasers believed the term “down” to mean natural down unless otherwise stated.  Turning its attention to the term NU, the Board held that even if it was understood as the phonetic version of the term “new,” it could simultaneously mean “an updated or modern version” of natural down instead of new and substitute material. The Board found that the applicant’s mark satisfied the first prong of the test and was misdescriptive of the identified goods. “The addition of the word ‘NU’ to the word ‘DOWN’ would not inform purchasers with any clarity that Applicant’s goods are not filled with down.” Regarding the second element of the test, relating to whether or not prospective purchasers are likely to believe that the misdescription actually describes the goods, the applicant admitted that the term “down” is often used in the particular industry in reference to products containing natural down. In satisfying the second prong of the test, the Board concluded that although the applicant’s packaging explained the products were down alternative, there was no guarantee that consumers would read the provided explanation. Furthermore, those purchasing the goods online may not read the fine print labeling required by the federal Textile and Wool Acts. “The mark standing alone must pass muster and this it fails to do.” Finally, the third element of the test, in regard to whether or not the misdescription is likely to affect a significant portion of the relevant consumers’ decision to purchase, the Board found that a significant number of relevant consumers would likely be interested in knowing what material was used in the applicant’s goods for multiple reasons including thinness or bulkiness of the fill, allergy issues, animal cruelty issues and monetary factors. Because of this, the Board concluded that the misdescription in the applicant’s mark would likely affect the purchasing decisions of a significant portion of relevant consumers. In summation, the Board affirmed the Examining Attorney’s refusal of registration for deceptiveness under §2(a) of the Lanham Act.

In a 2018 non-precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the refusal for registration of the deceptive mark P6 CHROME, for “dietary and nutritional supplements that do not contain chromium.” The Board found the mark to be deceptive because it was a misdescription of the identified goods which could lead consumers to believe that the supplements contained chromium and would, in turn, affect a significant portion of relevant consumers. In an effort to rebut this, the applicant claimed that the term “chrome” simply referred to the color of the packaging. The Board then turned to the three-prong test created by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to determine whether or not a mark is deceptive. To satisfy the first element of the test, the Board must decide whether or not the term misdescribes the character, quality, function, composition or use of goods. In this instance, both the applicant and the Examining Attorney submitted dictionary definitions that established that the term “chrome” meant chromium. It had been previously established that the applicant’s goods did not contain chromium, therefore the term was misdescriptive. The applicant argued that the term “chrome” had more than one meaning, but the Board held that alternative meanings held no merit in the context of the goods for which the mark was used. The record supplied evidence showing that there were already many dietary and nutritional supplements containing chromium sold under marks that used the term “CHROME.” Though the applicant argued that term “chrome” was in regard to the color of the packaging, the Board dismissed it saying that not all potential purchasers would see the packaging, only the mark and would likely perceive the term “CHROME” to be a description of an ingredient in the identified goods. The second prong, which asks if consumers are likely to believe the misdescription, was satisfied since the applicant’s goods did not contain chromium, however, it was previously established that many dietary and nutritional supplements do contain chromium. The Board went on to explain that not only average customers but “sophisticated purchasers” as well would be likely to believe the misdescription. “Sophisticated” customers would likely be familiar with the health benefits of chromium and be aware of other dietary and nutritional supplements that contained chromium and were sold under marks containing the term “CHROME.” The third prong of the test, regarding whether or not the misdescription would affect the purchasing decisions of a significant portion of relevant consumers, was satisfied as well. The Board found that though not all consumers would be aware of the potential health benefits of chromium, consumers who frequently purchased supplements “would find Applicant’s supplements more desirable because of the perceived representation that they contain chromium.” In this manner, all three prongs of the test were satisfied, and the Board affirmed the refusal of registration for deceptiveness under §2(a) of the Lanham Act.

Deceptive marks may not be registered with the USPTO under any circumstance. Unlike marks that have been deemed deceptively misdescriptive under §2(e)(1) of the Lanham Act, marks found to be deceptive under §2(a) cannot be federally registered even with a claim of acquired distinctiveness under §2(f) of the Lanham Act; nor is it enough for the applicant to disclaim the deceptive material.

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