Supreme Court Holds that Offensive Marks Are Registrable

Author: Lara Garner

As predicted in an earlier post here, the Supreme Court has held that the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registration of “immoral[ ] or scandalous” trademarks violates the First Amendment. Iancu v. Brunetti, No. 18–302, 588 U.S. ___ (2019).

Erik Brunetti, a counter culture artist, sought to trademark “FUCT.” Brunetti’s streetwear clothing line used the brand, which stands for “Friends U Can’t Trust” and is pronounced as the four letters “Eff U Cee Tee.” The Court noted one might read it differently, and if you did “you would hardly be alone.” Because of that common perception, when Brunetti discovered knockoffs using the brand, he attempted to register the trademark. His application was denied under a provision of the Lanham Act that prohibits registration of trademarks that consist of or comprise “immoral[ ] or scandalous matter,” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a). Brunetti challenged the denial under the First Amendment. The Federal Circuit invalidated the “immoral or scandalous” bar.

Two years ago, in Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744, 1763 (2017) the Court had declared unconstitutional the Lanham Act’s ban on registering marks that “disparage” any “person[ ], living or dead.” §1052(a). The ban was found to be the essence of viewpoint discrimination: allowing marks that are “positive” about a person and disallowing marks that are “derogatory.” In Brunetti, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority, “[t]oday we consider a First Amendment challenge to a neighboring provision of the act.” In a 6-3 vote, the Justices held that the ban on “immoral[ ] or scandalous” trademarks also violates the Constitution: “We hold that this provision infringes the First Amendment for the same reason: It too disfavors certain ideas.”

The divided Court in Matal had agreed on two propositions: (1) if a trademark registration bar is viewpoint based, it is unconstitutional; and (2) the disparagement bar was viewpoint based. In Iancu, the Court found the “immoral or scandalous” bar similarly flawed because it discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. Supported by a review of the dictionary definitions of “immoral” and “scandalous,” the statute was found facially biased in favor of messages that are in accord with society’s sense of decency. And in practice, the Court noted, the PTO has refused to register marks that are at odds with society’s views regarding topics such as drug use, religion, and terrorism but has approved registration of marks on those same topics that comport with society’s views.

The Government argued that the statute could be preserved by a limiting construction, narrowing the bar to marks that are lewd, sexually explicit, or profane. But the language is not ambiguous and to do so, the Court found, would be to rewrite, rather than interpret, the statute. Fairly interpreted, the viewpoint bias of the bar ends the inquiry and the bar must be invalidated.

Separate opinions dissenting in part with the majority were written by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. Each agreed with the majority in striking the “immoral” portion of the law. But all three agreed with each other that “scandalous” can be read to prohibit only marks that are “obscene, vulgar, or profane.” The three, along with Alito in his concurrence, expressed concern for a flood of new, crude trademarks and the creation of public spaces that would be repellant to some. As Justice Sotomayor explained, lamenting the expected result of the Court’s decision, the Government will have no choice but to begin registering the “coming rush” of “marks containing the most vulgar, profane, or obscene words and images imaginable.”

Justice Alito noted in his concurrence that the mark at issue could be denied under a narrower statute banning vulgar terms as the mark expresses no idea (and signifies the “severely limited vocabulary” of its user). But, that “[a]t a time when free speech is under attack, it is especially important for this Court to remain firm on the principle that the First Amendment does not tolerate viewpoint discrimination.”

Justice Roberts, concurring in part and dissenting in part, observed that the trademark registration system merely confers additional benefits. Denying registration does not restrict or punish speech. And First Amendment protections do not extend to require “the Government to give aid and comfort to those using obscene, vulgar, and profane modes of expression.”

Justice Breyer concurred in part and dissented in part at length, writing that precedents warn against interpretation of statutes that renders them unconstitutional. Agreeing with Justice Sotomayor’s narrow interpretation of “scandalous,” he proceeded to address the question of whether the benefits of trademark registration can be denied on the basis of the narrowly construed statute without offending the First Amendment. He concluded in the affirmative.

According to Justice Breyer, the category-based approach taken by the majority is inadequate. The speech-related categories for First Amendment analysis (such as “viewpoint discrimination”) should be viewed, not as outcome-determinative rules but rather as “rules of thumb.” They are not absolute rules; they sometime give weight to competing interests. And they are sometimes applied, as here, too rigidly. Justice Breyer urged that the Court look to the values the First Amendment seeks to protect and refrain from striking down ordinary regulations that pose little threat to free speech interests. The Court should ask whether the regulation at issue “works speech-related harm that is out of proportion to its justifications.”

The statute in this case, Justice Breyer wrote, does not fit neatly into the categories. It is an open question whether the trademarks statue merely regulates “commercial speech.” And it cannot be straightforwardly described as regulating “government speech.” The concept of “public forum” does not apply, although “limited public forum” may have some application as may cases involving government subsidies of private speech. The bounds between “viewpoint discrimination” and “content discrimination” may be hazy, and the denial of the benefits of federal trademark registration to highly vulgar or obscene words would not offend the Constitution. While emotion-laden, such words do not, standing alone, convey a viewpoint labeling them content-based should not be, according to Justice Breyer, outcome determinative.

A proportionality analysis of the statute, as interpreted by Justice Sotomayor, results in a conclusion that it does not offend the Constitution. A ban merely on registration does not bar businesses from using the words, and trademarks are highly regulated with the specialized aim of assisting customers with identification of goods. Those regulations necessarily limit speech. The Government has an interest in avoiding involvement in, and protecting children from such speech, which scientific evidence suggests may be different in kind – they have a physiological and emotional impact that most words do not. As such, in Justice Sotomayor’s view, risks to the First Amendment are minor in light of these objectives.

Justice Sotomayor’s concurrence in part and dissent in part was joined by Justice Breyer. An alternative to the majority’s interpretation is, according to Justice Sotomayor, “equally possible” and saves the statute rendering it a reasonable, viewpoint neutral-restriction. The Government does not have to confer trademark benefits at all but also cannot do so in a viewpoint-discriminatory way. However, the term “scandalous” should not be collapsed with “immoral” as the majority does because the term is ambiguous and the text of the statute comports with a narrow reading of its meaning.

In Justice Sotomayor’s view, “scandalous” can be read broadly to cover both idea and manners of expressing them, or narrowly to cover only manners of expression. Congress used the “scandalous,” “immoral,” and “disparage” to describe separate prohibited features. While “immoral” and “disparage” target offensive ideas, “scandalous” can be read, not as a synonym of “immoral,” but with a distinct, non-redundant meaning, as offensive due to the mode in which it is expressed. The most obvious such mode of expression is with the use of obscenity, vulgarity, or profanity. Justice Sotomayor does not propose a list (other than “the apparent homonym of Brunetti’s mark,” and “at least one particularly egregious racial epithet”) but would leave it to the USPTO to identify the “small group” of such words.

A limiting construction, according to Justice Sotomayor, is appropriate here and consistent with precedent. It is reasonable in the context of an ancillary benefit as compared to, for example, criminal statutes that threaten freedom. Brunetti would not even be prohibited from using his mark, merely from registering it. “Properly narrowed, ‘scandalous’ is a viewpoint-neutral form of content discrimination that is permissible in the kind of discretionary governmental program or limited forum typified by the trademark-registration system.”

The impact of this decision remains to be seen. But, notwithstanding the worries of some Justices, it seems unlikely that the USPTO will see a flood of attempts to register vulgarities. The value of a trademarks is in the goodwill associated with it. Building a mark’s positive reputation takes a considerable investment of time and care. The novelty of registering a mark that is unlikely, by its nature, to appeal to a wide class of consumers is outweighed by the expense of doing so. Registrations may still be rejected on the basis of other criteria, such as similarity to exiting marks. And it remains to be seen whether Congress will address the issue as it seems likely that a narrower prohibition would be upheld. As Justice Alito wrote in his concurrence, it is up to Congress, if it wants, to devise a “more carefully focused statute that precludes the registration of marks containing vulgar terms that play no real part in the expression of ideas.”

About the author: Lara Garner is a partner in Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani’s Intellectual Property Practice Group. Her practice focuses on Intellectual Property litigation and counseling for patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets, and in a broad range of matters, including contract, technology, and privacy issues. Ms. Garner’s biography can be found here.

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