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What’s In a Name, Anyways?

January 24, 2017

Ever scroll through your Twitter Feed, Facebook Page or Instagram account and notice an artist, musical group or celebrity with a name that seems a bit… bizarre?  Out of line?  Inappropriate?  Disparaging?  If you ever were somewhat disgusted by these types of names and wondered if they could actually be trademarked, you’re not alone. 

In early 2010, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (or USPTO for short), the federal agency responsible for granting all patents and trademarks, was faced with the question of whether a Portland-based Asian American dance-rock band could trademark their band name: The Slants.  The USPTO, seemingly offended by the band’s name choice, rejected the trademark on the claim that it was disparaging to individuals of Asian Pacific Islander descent. 

The Slants, however, didn’t take this rejection lightly.  For almost six years, contentious (and quite interesting) litigation ensued, with both the band and the USPTO making compelling arguments about what a disparaging term actually is and whether or not the First Amendment protects a disparaging term’s usage in the public domain.  Neutral third parties even submitted their own written submissions to offer some opinion and guidance.  Needless to say, the case needed resolution. 

This past Wednesday, the case—now referred to as Lee v. Tam—was finally heard before the United States Supreme Court.  While the eight Justices won’t issue their formal decision for some time, it will be interesting to see not only what the highest Court in the country thinks about The Slants’ choice of a band name, but how their decision will affect other artist’s ability to trademark potentially disparaging terms in the future.  We’ll keep you updated on any major developments.