Justia Trademark Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed an examiner’s refusal to register the trademark “TRUMP TOO SMALL” for use on T-shirts. According to Elster’s registration request, the phrase he sought to trademark invokes a memorable exchange between then-candidate Trump and Senator Marco Rubio from a 2016 presidential primary debate, and aims to “convey[] that some features” of Trump’s “policies are diminutive.” The Board’s decision was based on the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(c), and the Board’s finding that the mark included the surname of a living individual without his consent.The Federal Circuit reversed. Applying section 2(c) to bar registration of Elster’s mark unconstitutionally restricts free speech in violation of the First Amendment. Section 2(c), prohibits registration of a trademark that [c]onsists of or comprises a name, portrait, or signature identifying a particular living individual except by his written consent, or the name, signature, or portrait of a deceased President of the United States during the life of his widow, if any, except by the written consent of the widow.” As applied in this case, section 2(c) involves content-based discrimination that is not justified by either a compelling or substantial government interest. View "In Re Elster" on Justia Law

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Brunetti sought federal registration of the trademark FUCT. The Patent and Trademark Office denied his application under a Lanham Act provision that prohibits registration of trademarks that consist of or comprise "immoral[ ] or scandalous matter,” 15 U.S.C. 1052(a).The Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit in holding that the provision violates the First Amendment. The Court noted that it previously invalidated the Act’s ban on registering marks that “disparage” any “person[ ], living or dead.” The “immoral or scandalous” bar similarly discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. Expressive material is “immoral” when it is “inconsistent with rectitude, purity, or good morals”; “wicked”; or “vicious”; the Act permits registration of marks that champion society’s sense of rectitude and morality, but not marks that denigrate those concepts. Material is “scandalous” when it “giv[es] offense to the conscience or moral feelings”; “excite[s] reprobation”; or “call[s] out condemnation”; the Act allows registration of marks when their messages accord with, but not when their messages defy, society’s sense of decency or propriety. The statute, on its face, distinguishes between ideas aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them.The Court rejected an argument that the statute is susceptible of a limiting construction. The “immoral or scandalous” bar does not draw the line at lewd, sexually explicit, or profane marks. Nor does it refer only to marks whose “mode of expression,” independent of viewpoint, is particularly offensive. To cut the statute off where the government urges would not interpret the statute Congress enacted, but fashion a new one. View "Iancu v. Brunetti" on Justia Law

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The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of Hard Candy's request for a jury trial in an action under the Lanham Act. In this case, Hardy Candy sought every remedy permitted by the Act besides actual damages: an injunction to prevent future infringement, an accounting and the disgorgement of profits that the defendant made from the allegedly infringing goods, and declaratory relief, along with fees and costs.The court held that the remedy of an accounting and disgorgement of profits for trademark infringement is equitable in nature and has long been considered that way, and thus a plaintiff seeking the defendant's profits in lieu of actual damages is not entitled to a jury trial. The panel also held that the district court did not err in its merits determinations on infringement and fair use. View "Hard Candy, LLC v. Anastasia Beverly Hills, Inc." on Justia Law

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In regulating the practice of engineering, Mississippi restricts the use of the term “engineer.” Express operates automotive service centers in Mississippi and other states under the Tire Engineers mark. The Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers & Surveyors informed Express that the name Tire Engineers violated Miss. Code 73-13-39 and requested that it change its company advertisement name. Express sought a declaratory judgment, citing Express’s “rights of commercial free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment”; and “rights under preemptive federal trademark law” under 15 U.S.C. 1051–1127. The district court granted the Board summary judgment. The Fifth Circuit reversed. The Board’s decision violates the First Amendment’s commercial speech protections. Because its essential character is not deceptive, Tire Engineers is not inherently misleading. The name, trademarked since 1948, apparently refers to the work of mechanics using their skills “not usu[ally] considered to fall within the scope of engineering” to solve “technical problems” related to selecting, rotating, balancing, and aligning tires. Nor is the name actually misleading. Because the name is potentially misleading, the Board’s asserted interests are substantial but the record does not support the need for a total ban on the name. Other states with similar statutes have not challenged the use of the trademark and the Board did not address why less-restrictive means, such as a disclaimer, would not accomplish its goal. View "Express Oil Change, L.L.C. v. Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers & Surveyors" on Justia Law

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Brunetti owns the clothing brand “fuct.” In 2011, individuals filed an intent-to-use application for the mark FUCT for items of apparel. The applicants assigned the application to Brunetti, who amended it to allege use of the mark. The examining attorney refused to register the mark under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), finding it comprised immoral or scandalous matter because FUCT is the past tense of “fuck,” a vulgar word, and is therefore scandalous. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed. The Federal Circuit reversed. While substantial evidence supports the Board’s findings and it did not err concluding the mark comprises immoral or scandalous matter, section 2(a)’s bar on registering immoral or scandalous marks is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech. The bar is a content-based restriction on speech; trademark registration is not a government subsidy program that could justify such a bar. Nor is trademark registration a “limited public forum,” in which the government can more freely restrict speech. The bar survives neither strict nor intermediate scrutiny. Even if the government had a substantial interest in protecting the public from scandalous or immoral marks, the regulation does not directly advance that interest because section 2(a) does not directly prevent applicants from using their marks. View "In re: Brunetti" on Justia Law

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This petition for writ of mandamus arose in the context of a contested trademark action initiated by San Diego Comic Convention (SDCC) against petitioners, over the use of the mark "comic-con" or "comic con." The Ninth Circuit granted the petition and vacated the district court's orders directing petitioners to prominently post on their social medial outlets its order prohibiting comments about the litigation on social media, dubbing this posting a "disclaimer." The panel held that the orders at issue were unconstitutional prior restraints on speech because they prohibit speech that poses neither a clear and present danger nor a serious and imminent threat to SDCC's interest in a fair trial. The panel explained that the well-established doctrines on jury selection and the court's inherent management powers provide an alternative, less restrictive, means of ensuring a fair trial. View "Dan Farr Productions v. USDC-CASD" on Justia Law

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The rock group “The Slants,” chose that name to dilute the term’s denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asians. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied an application for registration of the name under 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which prohibits the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” The Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit in finding the clause unconstitutional. The Court first rejected an argument that the clause applies only to natural or juristic persons. The Court then held that the clause is subject to the Free Speech Clause, which does not regulate government speech. Trademarks are private, not government speech. "If trademarks become government speech when they are registered, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently.” The disparagement clause denies registration to any mark that is offensive to a substantial percentage of the members of any group. That is viewpoint discrimination. The “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” The disparagement clause cannot withstand even “relaxed” review. It does not serve a “substantial interest,” nor is it “narrowly drawn.” View "Matal v. Tam" on Justia Law

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Tam, the “front man” for Asian-American rock band, The Slants, sought to register the mark THE SLANTS and attached specimens featuring the name set against Asian motifs. The examining attorney found the mark disparaging to people of Asian descent (15 U.S.C. 1052(a)) and denied registration. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board dismissed for failure to file a brief. Tam filed another application, seeking to register the mark THE SLANTS for identical services and claiming use of the mark since 2006. Attached specimens did not contain Asian motifs. The examining attorney again found the mark disparaging and declined to register it. The Board affirmed. On rehearing, en banc, the Federal Circuit vacated, finding Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act unconstitutional. The government may not penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message, even when the government’s message-discriminatory penalty is less than a prohibition. “Courts have been slow to appreciate the expressive power of trademarks. Words—even a single word—can be powerful. With his band name, Tam conveys more about our society than many volumes of undisputedly protected speech.” The regulation at issue amounts to viewpoint discrimination; under strict scrutiny or intermediate scrutiny review, the disparagement proscription is unconstitutional, because the government has offered no legitimate interests to justify it. View "In Re:Tam" on Justia Law

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After Radiance published an article online entitled “NAACP: National Association for the Abortion of Colored People” that criticized the NAACP’s stance on abortion, the NAACP sent Radiance a cease-and-desist letter. Radiance sought a declaratory judgment that it had not infringed any NAACP trademarks and the NAACP filed counterclaims alleging trademark infringement and dilution. The court concluded that the NAACP does not have actionable claims for trademark infringement in this case; Radiance's use of the NAACP's marks or colorable imitation falls squarely within the exceptions to trademark dilution specifically included in the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1051 et seq., to avoid encroaching on free speech rights; and therefore, the court reversed the district court's injunction and remanded with directions that defendant's counterclaims be dismissed. View "The Radiance Foundation, Inc. v. NAACP" on Justia Law

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Experience Hendrix filed suit against Pitsicalis alleging that Pitsicalis was infringing trademarks in violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1051-1127, and that the trademark infringement also amounted to an unfair or deceptive trade practice proscribed by Washington's Consumer Protection Act (WCPA), Wash. Rev. Code 19.86.010-19.86.920. Determining that Pitsicalis had Article III standing, the court concluded, inter alia, that the WPRA was constitutional as applied to the narrow set of non-speculative circumstances at issue in this case; Pitsicalis was liable under the Lanham Act for using domain names that infringed Experience Hendrix's trademark "Hendrix"; and Paragraph 5 of the permanent injunction failed to state clearly the terms of the injunction and did not describe in reasonable detail the acts that were and were not restrained. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court's determination that the Washington statute was unconstitutional and remanded Pitsicalis's declaratory judgment claims pertaining to the WPRA with instructions to enter judgment on those claims in favor of Experience Hendrix; affirmed the grant of partial summary judgment on Experience Hendrix's claim that Pitsicalis's use of domain names infringed Experience Hendrix's mark; vacated the permanent injunction and remanded so the district court could revise the language at issue; reversed the Rule 50(b)(3) decision to strike most of the jury's award of damages under both the Lanham Act and the WPRA; affirmed the district court's order granting a new trial on damages under both statutes; remanded for a new trial on such damages; vacated the district court's award of attorney's fees under the WCPA; and remanded the fee request for further proceedings. View "Experience Hendrix v. HendrixLicensing.com" on Justia Law