In January, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Iancu v. Brunetti, a case that will decide whether it is constitutional for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to refuse trademark registration for immoral or scandalous marks. A clothing line applied to register the mark “FUCT” but was refused by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office pursuant to Section 2(a) of the Lanham Trademark Act, which specifically bars registration of immoral or scandalous matter. To determine whether a mark is immoral or scandalous, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office considers ordinary and common meanings. The meaning imparted by a mark must be determined in the context of the current attitudes of the day, and as such, can change over time.
The clothing line appealed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to refuse its mark under Section 2(a) to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit affirmed the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office’s decision to refuse registration under Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act, but then ruled that Section 2(a)’s bar on immoral or scandalous marks is unconstitutional under the Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment. The Federal Circuit found that refusing registration of trademarks which the U.S. Patent & Trademark office finds immoral or scandalous results in content-based speech regulation, which is presumptively invalid under the Constitution. The government argued that Section 2(a) does not implicate the First Amendment because trademark registration is either a government subsidy program or a limited public forum, or in the alternative, is commercial speech that implicates only an intermediate level of scrutiny. The Federal Circuit rejected these arguments, and found that “trademarks convey a commercial message, but not exclusively so,” recognizing the “expressive content” of a trademark.
The question turns on how the Supreme Court will classify an individual’s act of applying and obtaining a trademark registration, and the government’s act of granting a trademark registration. On the one hand, the granting of registration can be classified as a government act in many ways, such as a government subsidy program because it is the provision of benefits rather than money, a limited public forum where the government has opened its property for a limited purpose, i.e., trademark registration, or the regulation of commercial speech. On the other hand, should the Supreme Court consider trademark registration as an individual’s expressive speech under the First Amendment as the Federal Circuit did, Section 2(a) will likely be overturned as unconstitutional. Should it be overturned, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will no longer be able to refuse registration for marks it deems immoral or scandalous.
The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case this term.