Appeals Court OKs F-Bombs For Federal Trademark Protection
from the at-long-last,-adults-being-treated-like-adults dept
The Supreme Court’s decision in The Slants’ trademark case is already beginning to pay off for trademark seekers whose applications were determined to be a bit too racy for the Trademark Office’s (subjective) taste. Section 1052(a) of the US Code used to forbid the registration of trademarks that “disparaged” other persons or groups or anything the USPTO found to be “immoral or scandalous.”
That’s all gone now, thanks to the Supreme Court, which found this restriction to registrations unconstitutional. The Supreme Court struck down the language limiting “disparaging” trademark registrations. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has just struck down the remaining limiting language (“immoral or scandalous”), allowing clothing brand FUCT to finally secure federal trademark protection.
The Brunetti court [rejected] the government’s argument that the “immoral or scandalous” prohibition of Section 2(a) was aimed at commercial speech. The primary test for determining whether a mark is “immoral or scandalous” is if the general public would find the mark “shocking to the sense of truth, decency, or propriety; disgraceful; offensive; disreputable; . . . giving offense to the conscience or moral feelings; . . . or calling out for condemnation.” In re Fox, 702 F.3d 633, 635 (Fed. Cir. 2012). The court noted that this restriction is aimed solely at the expressive content of trademarks, rather than their commercial source-identifying function, and necessarily involves moral value judgments. (Decision at 27.) The court could have stopped after this determination, since the government agreed that the “immoral or scandalous” portion of Section 2(a) could not survive strict scrutiny, but it went on to find that the restriction could not survive even intermediate scrutiny.
The decision takes even more pointed shots are the government’s unavailing arguments later in the ruling.
The government’s interest in protecting the public from profane and scandalous marks is not akin to the government’s interest in protecting children and other unsuspecting listeners from a barrage of swear words over the radio in Pacifica. A trademark is not foisted upon listeners by virtue of its being registered. Nor does registration make a scandalous mark more accessible to children. Absent any concerns that trademark registration invades a substantial privacy interest in an intolerable manner, the government’s interest amounts to protecting everyone, including adults, from scandalous content. But even when “many adults themselves would find the material highly offensive,” adults have a First Amendment right to view and hear speech that is profane and scandalous.
Even if we were to hold that the government has a substantial interest in protecting the public from scandalous or immoral marks, the government could not meet the third prong of Central Hudson, which requires the regulation directly advance the government’s asserted interest. 447 U.S. at 566. As the government has repeatedly exhorted, § 2(a) does not directly prevent applicants from using their marks. Regardless of whether a trademark is federally registered, an applicant can still brand clothing with his mark, advertise with it on the television or radio, or place it on billboards along the highway. In this electronic/Internet age, to the extent that the government seeks to protect the general population from scandalous material, with all due respect, it has completely failed.
This doesn’t end the battle. The government may decided to appeal this decision, lining up this portion of Section 2(a) for a review by the Supreme Court. Or, as Randazza points out, legislators could decide to ruin the registration of bad words for everyone with “for the children” legislation altering the contours of language eligible for trademark protection.
But, for the moment, the First Amendment triumphs over USPTO prudery. Let the F-bomb gold rush begin!