Trademark, scandal, and dodging precedent in Iancu v. Brunetti

Last Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument in Iancu v. Brunetti over whether the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) can refuse to grant trademarks to “immoral” or “scandalous” matters, as permitted under §2a of the Lanham Act. Last year, in Matal v. Tam, the Court ruled that the same section’s mandate to the PTO to deny trademarks to “disparaging” matters was unconstitutional, thus prohibiting the PTO from denying trademarks to brands based on, among other things, racial epithets.

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Tam was a difficult case: the facts at issue concerned an Asian band, “The Slants,” who embrace that traditionally derogative term in an ironic sense, so as to undermine the power of the offensive term. Importantly, the Court did not limit its ruling to minorities reclaiming derogatory terms; instead it held that genuinely racist, sexist, and other derogatory trademarks could not be barred by the PTO on those grounds. Having unanimously (though in split opinions) decided Tam, it seems to follow inexorably that “immoral” and “scandalous” marks must receive like treatment. Paradoxically, however, the Court last week seemed considerably less inclined to allow the PTO to prohibit swear words than to prohibit racial slurs.

In the oral argument in Iancu v. Brunetti, many of the justices went to great lengths to try to differentiate Tam, and their efforts were less than convincing. Chief Justice Roberts seemed to be more concerned with the idea of obscene trademarks than with the idea of trademarks for hate speech. Justice Breyer suggested that swear words could just be considered “fighting words,” and thus an exception to First Amendment protection—yet a white-owned company exploiting the term “Redskins” is not. Many of the justices seemed willing to contemplate allowing words that are incredibly offensive to minorities to become federal trademarks, but not words that might offend genteel folks, such as the justices themselves.

ScotusOA.com prediction based on Supreme Court Oral Argument in Iancu v. Brunetti (April 15, 2019)

How can you give a FCUK™ without getting FUCT™?

We think that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan are in fact in Respondent’s camp, despite the unclear signals they gave. They both see Tam as binding precedent in this case. They also seemed concerned, like Justice Gorsuch, that there was no “rational line” through the PTO’s inconsistent decision-making regarding words that are phonetically similar to “fuck,” whether in past tense or present tense.

The PTO defines vulgarity, a subcategory of scandalous terms, as “lacking in taste, indelicate, and morally crude.” These terms are, of course, inherently subjective and discretionary and by its own admission the PTO’s application of this test has been highly inconsistent. The PTO has allowed “FCUK,” “Fugly,” and “PHUKIT” to be trademarks, but denied, in the case at hand, a trademark for “FUCT.” But the government promises only to apply the seemingly broad terms of the statute far more narrowly in future, and argues this should help it avoid the finding of unconstitutional vagueness.

A case driven by confusion and prim euphemism

The core goal of trademark is to avoid consumer confusion. Ironically, the Iancu v. Brunetti oral argument was itself clouded with confusion about some very basic features of trademark law. One striking misunderstanding came from Justice Alito:

Justice Alito: “What’s going to — if this is held to be unconstitutional, what is going to happen with whatever list of really dirty words still exist and all of their variations? There’s going to be a mad scramble by people to register these marks. And the ones who get there first are going to have exclusive — they’re not unlimited. What’s going to — there’s going to be — those who get there first are going to be the ones who have these.”

We think the Justice might be confusing trademarks with the race to claim internet domain names. Registration of a mark in one classification does not preempt other non-confusing uses of the same word, either as a trademark or as a verb.

One thing that the Court did not seem confused about was the word at issue. Rather disappointingly for those among us who consider that swearing can be a linguistic art form, none of the advocates or the justices were willing to say the word “FUCT.” Instead, Mr. Stewart made sure the Court was clear on the term by using up his time by saying, more than once, this rather elaborate and wordy euphemism: the term that “would be perceived as the equivalent of the past participle form of the — the paradigmatic profane word in our culture.” Are the justices so sheltered and fragile that advocates must avoid even the conventional euphemism of “the f-word?” If so, this once again raises the problem of the unrepresentativeness of this elite group of jurists, particularly when deciding cases that hinge on the mores, perceptions, and likely inferences of the much more diverse U.S. population.

In similarly euphemistic terms, Mr. Stewart referred to a “particular racial slur [which] is considered uniquely offensive, even as compared to other racist speech” and argued that accordingly “it could be denied registration on the ground that it was an impermissible mode of expressing a racist — racist thought.” So the government wants not only to treat rude words as more offensive than racial slurs, it also wants to differentiate among the racial slurs that it considers beyond the pale, even after the Supreme Court has ruled that it does not have the power to make such determinations. We applaud the PTO’s act of civil disobedience here, but it is very hard to reconcile with the Court’s opinion in Tam. Similar acrobatics and logic will be needed to differentiate this case from Tam, but our analysis suggests that at least some justices on the Court are willing to limber up and do their best to take on that challenge.

It could be that the outcome will actually be unanimous for Respondent, if only because terms such as “scandalous” and “immoral” are clearly at least as unconstitutionally vague as “disparaging,” and would return the Court to regulating morality, a task it has struggled with in the past. As we have previously discussed, unanimous and lopsided decisions are hard to predict due to cheap talk at oral argument. Justice Breyer and the conservatives (other than Gorsuch) may have simply been clucking their displeasure at the vulgarity of the Respondent. They may in fact rule in his favor while clutching at their pearls. But the cavalier attitude of the Court during oral argument this Term toward other precedents makes us skeptical.

Prediction:

Petitioner (PTO): Breyer, Roberts, Alito, Kavanaugh, Thomas

Respondent (Brunetti): Ginsburg, Gorsuch, Kagan, Sotomayor