Monday, June 19, 2017

Supreme Court Invalidates Lanham Act Bar To Registration of Disparaging Trademarks

In Matal v. Tam, (Sup. Ct., June 19, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court today held unconstitutional under the 1st Amendment's free speech protection the provision in the Lanham Trademark Act that prohibits registration of any trademark that
consists 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. (15 U. S. C. §1052(a)). 
The case generated three separate opinions, all ultimately concluding that the refusal to register "The Slants" as the name of an Asian-American rock group amounts to viewpoint discrimination. Five of the justices (Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, plus Thomas in a separate opinion) held that viewpoint discrimination always triggers heightened scrutiny.  Three others (Alito, Roberts and Breyer) said they need not reach the issue because the restriction does not pass even the lower hurdle for commercial speech. Justice Gorsuch did not participate.  New York Times reports on the decision.

The result of today's decision is that trademarks that disparage religious groups will also be able to be registered.  The rock group had argued that the Lanham Act language only applies to individuals, but in rejecting that, the Court (in a portion of the opinion joined by 7 justices) said:
[The statute] applies to the members of any group whose members share particular “beliefs,” such as political, ideological, and religious groups. It applies to marks that denigrate “institutions,” and on Tam’s reading, it also reaches “juristic” persons such as corporations, unions, and other unincorporated associations. See §1127. Thus, the clause is not limited to marks that disparage a particular natural person.