Trademark registration allows businesses to protect some very valuable assets—the names, logos, and related designs that clearly identify them to the public. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) oversees trademark registration in accordance with the federal Lanham Act, which prohibits the registration of marks under certain circumstances. Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, known as the Disparagement Clause, bars the USPTO from registering any mark that “may disparage…persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a). The statute does not define “disparage,” and this vagueness is part of what led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Disparagement Clause as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. Matal v. Tam, 582 US ___ (2017).
Both the USPTO and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) acknowledge that “disparagement” is a highly subjective concept that must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The TTAB has identified two factors that can help identify material that might be barred by the Disparagement Clause. First, would a reasonable person, considering the context of the mark, interpret it as “refer[ring] to an identifiable” person or group of people? Second, would a “substantial composite” of that group of people view the mark as disparaging? See Harjo v. Pro-Football, Inc., 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1705 (TTAB 1999); see also 284 F.Supp.2d 96 (D.D.C. 2003), 415 F.3d 44 (D.C. Cir. 2005).
The Harjo case referenced above involved a professional football team with a name believed by many to be disparaging to Native Americans. The proposed trademark at issue in Matal is generally known as a disparaging term for people of Asian descent. The plaintiff in that case is a member of a band who uses the word as its name and who sought to register it as a trademark. The band members, all of whom are of Asian descent, stated that they wanted to “drain [the word’s] denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asian persons.” The USPTO rejected the application under § 2(a). The plaintiff appealed, claiming in part that the Disparagement Clause is an unconstitutional content- or viewpoint-based restriction on speech.