Matal v. Tam

Simon Tam, lead singer of the rock group “The Slants,” chose this moniker in order to “reclaim” the term and drain its denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asian persons. Tam sought federal registration of the mark “THE SLANTS.” The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the application under a Lanham Act provision prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a). Tam contested the denial of registration through the administrative appeals process, to no avail. He then took the case to federal court, where the en banc Federal Circuit ultimately found the disparagement clause facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. 808 F. 3d 1321, affirmed.

JUSTICE ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III–A, concluding:

1. The disparagement clause applies to marks that disparage the members of a racial or ethnic group. Tam’s view, that the clause applies only to natural or juristic persons, is refuted by the plain terms of the clause, which uses the word “persons.” A mark that disparages a “substantial” percentage of the members of a racial or ethnic group necessarily disparages many “persons,” namely, members of that group. Tam’s narrow reading also clashes with the breadth of the disparagement clause, which by its terms applies not just to “persons,” but also to “institutions” and “beliefs.” §1052(a). Had Congress wanted to confine the reach of the clause, it could have used the phrase “particular living individual,” which it used in neighboring §1052(c). Tam contends that his interpretation is supported by legislative history and by the PTO’s practice for many years of registering marks that plainly denigrated certain groups. But an inquiry into the meaning of the statute’s text ceases when, as here, “the statutory language is unambiguous and the statutory scheme is coherent and consistent.” Barnhart v. Sigmon Coal Co., 534 U. S. 438, 450 (internal quotation marks omitted). Even if resort to legislative history and early enforcement practice were appropriate, Tam has presented nothing showing a congressional intent to adopt his interpretation, and the PTO’s practice in the years following the disparagement clause’s enactment is unenlightening. Pp. 8–12.

2. The disparagement clause violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. Contrary to the Government’s contention, trademarks are private, not government speech. Because the “Free Speech Clause . . . does not regulate government speech,” Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460, 467, the government is not required to maintain viewpoint neutrality on its own speech. This Court exercises great caution in extending its government-speech precedents, for if private speech could be passed off as government speech by simply affixing a government seal of approval, government could silence or muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints.The Federal Government does not dream up the trademarks registered by the PTO. Except as required by §1052(a), an examiner may not reject a mark based on the viewpoint that it appears to express. If the mark meets the Lanham Act’s viewpoint-neutral requirements, registration is mandatory. And once a mark is registered, the PTO is not authorized to remove it from the register unless a party moves for cancellation, the registration expires, or the Federal Trade Commission initiates proceedings based on certain grounds. It is thus far fetched to suggest that the content of a registered mark is government speech, especially given the fact that if trademarks become government speech when they are registered, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently. And none of this Court’s government-speech cases supports the idea that registered trademarks are government speech. Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Assn., 544 U. S. 550; Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460; and Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., 576 U. S. ___, distinguished. Holding that the registration of a trademark converts the mark into government speech would constitute a huge and dangerous extension of the government-speech doctrine, for other systems of government registration (such as copyright) could easily be characterized in the same way. Pp. 12–18.

JUSTICE ALITO, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE THOMAS, and JUSTICE BREYER, concluded in Parts III–B, III–C, and IV:

(a) The Government’s argument that this case is governed by the Court’s subsidized-speech cases is unpersuasive. Those cases all involved cash subsidies or their equivalent, e.g., funds to private parties for family planning services in Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U. S. 173, and cash grants to artists in National Endowment for Arts v. Finley, 524 U. S. 569. The federal registration of a trademark is nothing like these programs. The PTO does not pay money to parties seeking registration of a mark; it requires the payment of fees to file an application and to maintain the registration once it is granted. The Government responds that registration provides valuable non-monetary benefits traceable to the Government’s resources devoted to registering the marks, but nearly every government service requires the expenditure of government funds. This is true of services that benefit everyone, like police and fire protection, as well as services that are utilized by only some, e.g., the adjudication of private lawsuits and the use of public parks and highways. Pp. 18–20.

(b) Also unpersuasive is the Government’s claim that the disparagement clause is constitutional under a “government-program” doctrine, an argument which is based on a merger of this Court’s government-speech cases and subsidy cases. It points to two cases involving a public employer’s collection of union dues from its employees, Davenport v. Washington Ed. Assn., 551 U. S. 177, and Ysursa v. Pocatello Ed. Assn., 555 U. S. 353, but these cases occupy a special area of First Amendment case law that is far removed from the registration of trademarks. Cases in which government creates a limited public forum for private speech, thus allowing for some content- and speaker-based restrictions, see, e.g., Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U. S. 98, 106–107; Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, 831, are potentially more analogous. But even in those cases, viewpoint discrimination is forbidden. The disparagement clause denies registration to any mark that is offensive to a substantial percentage of the members of any group. That is viewpoint discrimination in the sense relevant here: Giving offense is a viewpoint. The “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” Street v. New York, 394 U. S. 576, 592. Pp. 20–23.

(c) The dispute between the parties over whether trademarks are commercial speech subject to the relaxed scrutiny outlined in Central Hudson Gas & Elect. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of N. Y., 447 U. S. 557, need not be resolved here because the disparagement clause cannot withstand even Central Hudson review. Under Central Hudson, a restriction of speech must serve “a substantial interest” and be “narrowly drawn.” Id., at 564–565 (internal quotation marks omitted). One purported interest is in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend, but that idea strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. The second interest asserted is protecting the orderly flow of commerce from disruption caused by trademarks that support invidious discrimination; but the clause, which reaches any trademark that disparages any person, group, or institution, is not narrowly drawn. Pp. 23–26.

JUSTICE KENNEDY, joined by JUSTICE GINSBURG, JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR, and JUSTICE KAGAN, agreed that 15 U. S. C. §1052(a) constitutes viewpoint discrimination, concluding:

(a) With few narrow exceptions, a fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that the government may not punish or suppress speech based on disapproval of the ideas or perspectives the speech conveys. See Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, 828–829. The test for viewpoint discrimination is whether—within the relevant subject category—the government has singled out a subset of messages for disfavor based on the views expressed. Here, the disparagement clause identifies the relevant subject as “persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols,” §1052(a); and within that category, an applicant may register a positive or benign mark but not a derogatory one. The law thus reflects the Government’s disapproval of a subset of messages it finds offensive, the essence of viewpoint discrimination. The Government’s arguments in defense of the statute are unpersuasive. Pp. 2–5.

(b) Regardless of whether trademarks are commercial speech, the viewpoint based discrimination here necessarily invokes heightened scrutiny. See Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 564 U. S. 552, 566. To the extent trademarks qualify as commercial speech, they are an example of why that category does not serve as a blanket exemption from the First Amendment’s requirement of viewpoint neutrality. In the realm of trademarks, the metaphorical marketplace of ideas becomes a tangible, powerful reality. To permit viewpoint discrimination in this context is to permit Government censorship. Pp. 5–7.

ALITO, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III–A, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined, and in which THOMAS, J., joined except for Part II, and an opinion with respect to Parts III–B, III–C, and IV, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS and BREYER, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. GORSUCH, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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Lyons v. American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation

Sheila Lyons, DVM (“Lyons”) appeals from a decision of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“the PTO”) Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“the Board”) canceling her registration of the service mark THE AMERICAN COLLEGE OF VETERINARY SPORTS MEDICINE AND REHABILITATION (“the mark”) on the Supplemental Register on the ground that she does not own the mark. See Am. Coll. of Veterinary Sports Med. & Rehab. v. Lyons, 2016 WL 1380739, at *19 (T.T.A.B. Mar. 17, 2016) (“Decision”). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

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Joseph Phelps Vineyards, LLC v. Fairmont Holdings, LLC

Joseph Phelps Vineyards, LLC (“Vineyards”) has produced and sold wines bearing the trademark INSIGNIA since 1978. In 2012, Fairmont Holdings, LLC (“Fairmont”) received federal registration for the mark ALEC BRADLEY STAR INSIGNIA for cigars and cigar products. On Vineyards’ petition for cancellation, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“Board” or “TTAB”) denied the petition,1 stating the finding that:

while it appears that Petitioner’s INSIGNIA branded wine has met with success in the marketplace, we are not persuaded on this record that Petitioner’s mark is a famous mark.

TTAB Op. at 8.

The TTAB found that Vineyards’ INSIGNIA mark is not a “famous” mark and gave this factor no weight. The TTAB erred in its legal analysis, in analyzing the “fame” of INSIGNIA wine as an all-or-nothing factor, and discounting it entirely in reaching the conclusion of no likelihood of confusion as to source, contrary to law and precedent. As a result of this error, the Board did not properly apply the totality of the circumstances standard, which requires considering all the relevant factors on a scale appropriate to their merits. We vacate the Board’s decision and remand for redetermination of the merits of the cancellation petition.

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Elliott v. Google, Inc.

The panel affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Google, Inc., in an action under the Lanham Act, seeking cancellation of the GOOGLE trademark on the ground that it is generic.

The panel held that a claim of genericness or “genericide,” where the public appropriates a trademark and uses it as a generic name for particular types of goods or services irrespective of its source, must be made with regard to a particular type of good or service. The district court thus correctly focused on internet search engines rather than the “act” of searching the internet. The panel also held that verb use of the word “google” to mean “search the internet,” as opposed to adjective use, did not automatically constitute generic use. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the plaintiffs’ evidence was insufficient to establish that the primary significance of the word “google” to the relevant public was as a generic name for internet search engines, rather than as a mark identifying the Google search engine in particular.

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Grayson O Company v. Agadir International

Grayson O Company (“Grayson O”), a haircare product manufacturer and holder of a registered trademark, brought this trademark and unfair competition action against Agadir International LLC (“Agadir”), a competitor haircare product manufacturer. The district court granted summary judgment to Agadir, finding that Grayson O had failed to show the marks were likely to be confused. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

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Progressive Distribution Services, Inc. v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

Plaintiff, Progressive Distribution Services, Inc. (“Progressive”) brought suit against Defendants, United Parcel Service, Inc., a Delaware corporation, United Parcel Service, Inc., an Ohio corporation, United Parcel Service of America, Inc., a Delaware corporation, and United Parcel Service Market Driver, a Georgia corporation (collectively referred to herein as “UPS”), alleging that UPS violated the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1051, et seq., the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 455.091, et seq., and the common law governing service marks, trademarks and unfair competition. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the district court’s judgment.

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Martinizing International v. BC Cleaners

Martinizing International, LLC commenced this action against BC Cleaners, LLC and two of its member-managers, Brent Lundell and Timothy Carver, asserting claims of LanhamAct trademark infringement, see 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), and violation of the Minnesota Deceptive Trade Practices Act (MDTPA), see Minn. Stat. § 325D.44. Defendants failed to appear. The district court granted a default judgment against BC Cleaners, concluding that it willfully infringed Martinizing’s trademarks and engaged in a deceptive trade practice. Martinizing Int’l, LLC v. BC Cleaners, LLC, 2015 WL 8483280 (D. Minn. Dec. 9, 2015). The court denied Martinizing a default judgment against Lundell and Carver, concluding they were not personally liable for trademark infringement or a deceptive trade practice. Id. at *3. Martinizing appeals, arguing the court erred when it denied a default judgment against Lundell and Carver and reduced the award of attorneys’ fees for willful infringement. Defendants have not appeared in this Court. We affirm the grant of a permanent injunction enjoining BC Cleaners from using Martinizing’s trademarks. We conclude Martinizing failed to prove willful infringement by BC Cleaners and therefore reverse the award of damages, an accounting for profits, and attorneys’ fees. We affirm the denial of a default judgment against defendants Lundell and Carver.

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Covertech Fabricating Inc v. TVM Building Products Inc

Too often the silence of contracting parties must be filled by the voice of the courts. Such is the case here, where we are called upon to resolve a trademark dispute in which no written contract designates ownership, and, in the process, to clarify the paradigm through which common law ownership of an unregistered trademark is determined when the initial sale of goods bearing the mark is between a manufacturer and its exclusive distributor. The District Court in this case awarded ownership to the manufacturer, but did so on the basis of the first use test, and found the distributor liable for infringement and fraud before rejecting its defense of acquiescence and awarding damages under the Lanham Act. Because the District Court failed to recognize and apply the rebuttable presumption of manufacturer ownership that we conclude pertains where priority of ownership is not otherwise established, and because the District Court incorrectly relied on gross sales unadjusted to reflect sales of infringing products to calculate damages, we will affirm on alternative grounds as to ownership, will affirm as to fraud and acquiescence, and will vacate and remand as to damages.

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Streamline Production Systems, Inc. v. Streamline Manufacturing, Inc.

Streamline Production Systems, Inc. filed this trademark infringement suit against Streamline Manufacturing, Inc. seeking damages under the Lanham Act and Texas common law. After stipulating to an injunction, the parties proceeded to a jury trial on the issues of infringement and damages. The jury returned a verdict finding that Streamline Manufacturing, Inc. infringed on Streamline Production Systems, Inc.’s valid trademark in its name and awarded damages for lost royalties, unjust enrichment, and exemplary damages, each in the sum of $230,000, for a total award of $690,000. The district court denied Streamline Manufacturing Inc.’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, as well as its renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, or in the alternative, for a new trial. Finding insufficient evidence to support the damages awards, we AFFIRM the jury’s finding of trademark infringement but VACATE the damages awards.

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Vetter v. McAtee

A jury trial on several claims and counter-claims, including trademark infringement and breach of partnership agreement, resulted in judgments adverse to both parties. They have now appealed and cross-appealed citing several errors that they believe the trial court committed. We affirm.

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