US Supreme Court Decision Opens the Floodgate for Racially Offensive Trademarks

By: Paul Hirsch

Since the Lanham act was passed in 1946, the United States Patent and Trademark Office had rejected trademark applications that include racially offensive language and symbols, because they “disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute”. In June, the US Supreme Court ruled that racially offensive trademarks are now protected under the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court decision emerged from the case Matal v. Tam, where an Asian-American rock band attempted to trademark their band’s name as “The Slants”, language considered to be a racial slur. The band had their trademark dismissed by the USPTO  for being “disparaging” under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. In June, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act “offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.” This decision cleared the way for offensive language, such as “The Slants”, to be trademarked.

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Matal v. Tam, the USPTO has seen a large influx of applications to trademark racially offensive language and symbols.

For example, an African-American man named Curtis Bordenave filed a trademark application for the “N-word” the same day the Matal v. Tam decision was made. Bordenave filed to use the language in association with retail store services, namely the sale of general merchandise.His goal is keeping the “N-word” out of visible circulation because he can enforce his trademark rights against its use.

Another example is Steven Maynard, an attorney, who has filed a trademark for the swastika symbol. Maynard plans on commercializing the offensive symbol on clothing and then charging an abnormally high price for the clothing, which effectively minimizes the symbol’s visible circulation in commerce.

Federal trademark registration protects parties against the unapproved use of their trademarked brands. In these cases, that includes the use of, or profit from, privately owned racially offensive language and symbols such as the n-word and swastika. However, there are conditions to attaining and keeping a registered trademark.

Prior to registering the trademark, applicants must show that there is a relationship between the brand, the product that is branded, and the consumer connection to both. If a design or word is universal or generally used by others the US Patent and Trademark Office may dismiss the trademark registration. Thus, it will difficult for applicants like Maynard to trademark the swastika, a universally known symbol.

After a trademark is registered, the trademark must be continuously used or it will be considered to have been abandoned. A party may not register trademarks for racially offensive language and simply hide it away forever. Thus, trademark owners who intend to control the censorship of the racially offensive language in commerce must simultaneously enter the trademark into commerce at a continuous rate. This could prove difficult.    

Parties who intend to trademark racially offensive language to control the message will undoubtedly face difficulties along the way. Although the US Supreme Court’s decision in Matal v. Tam has opened the floodgate for racially offensive language to be trademarked, it is still unclear how these trademarks will be handled by the US Patent and Trademark Office. We may not have an answer anytime soon, as trademarks are normally not decided upon immediately, and may take years to approve or deny.

Disclaimer: This article discusses general legal issues and developments. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current law in your jurisdiction. These informational materials are not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.  Bend Law Group, PC expressly disclaims all liability in respect of any actions taken or not taken based on any contents of this article