Iancu v. Brunetti
|Iancu v. Brunetti|
|Argued April 15, 2019|
Decided June 24, 2019
|Full case name||Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director, Patent and Trademark Office v. Erik Brunetti|
|Citations||588 U.S. (more)|
|Prior||In re Brunetti, 877 F.3d 1330 (Fed. Cir. 2017); cert. granted, 139 S. Ct. 782 (2019).|
|Whether the Lanham Act's prohibition on the federal registration of "immoral" or "scandalous" marks is facially invalid under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment|
|The Lanham Act prohibition on the registration of "immoral" or "scandalous" trademarks infringes the First Amendment.|
|Majority||Kagan, joined by Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh|
|Concur/dissent||Sotomayor, joined by Breyer|
Iancu v. Brunetti, No. 18–302, 588 U.S. ___ (2019), is a United States Supreme Court case related to the registration of trademarks under the Lanham Act. The case seeks to determine if refusal to grant "scandalous" trademarks under the Lanham Act is unconstitutional under the freedom of speech clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court ruled in June 2019 that the restrictions of "immoral" or "scandalous" trademarks defined by the Lanham Act is unconstitutional as it permits the United States Patent & Trademark Office to engage in viewpoint discrimination, violating the First Amendment.
Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, passed in 1946, holds that a trademark may be refused registration by the United States Patent and Trademark Office if the subject consists of "immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter". Section 2(a) had also held that trademarks may be refused if they were deemed "disparaging" to individuals or groups, but the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Matal v. Tam (2017) this restriction on "disparaging" trademarks was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
Erik Brunetti started a clothing line with skateboarder Natas Kaupas in 1990 using the name Fuct (stylized as "FUCT"). Fuct stood as an initialism for "Friends U Can’t Trust", but Brunetti felt its phonetic closeness to the expletive "fucked" was humorous. Around 2010, Brunetti saw a number of knock-offs of his clothing line being sold on eBay and other Internet sites, inappropriately using the "Fuct" label. In 2011, Brunetti sought to register the trademark on Fuct to stop these knock-offs, but was denied registration by the Office examiner that stated the word was phonetically similar to the expletive "fucked", which was well-established as a "scandalous" word under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. This decision was upheld by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) in 2014.
Brunetti then appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit with support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU argued that the Supreme Court had already ruled there was a higher level of scrutiny when the mere display of a potentially offensive word can be regulated from the 1971 case Cohen v. California. In 2017, the Federal Circuit agreed with the TTAB that "Fuct" would fall under the definition of a "scandalous" word, not only for its similarity to the vulgar word but also the use of such words in the target youthful market for the clothing line. However, the Federal Circuit also ruled that the restriction against "scandalous" words of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act was unconstitutional as it violated Brunetti's rights to free speech, particularly in light of the government failing to take any steps to regulate such speech across the Internet, and reversed the TTAB's holdings. The Federal Circuit referred back to its prior decision and its Supreme Court affirmation in Matal v. Tam related to "disparaging" trademarks, in that outside of the area of trademarks, such language remains unrestricted as private speech and not government speech.
The Patent and Trademark Office, under its director Andrei Iancu, filed for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the case, with oral arguments heard on April 15, 2019. Observers believed a majority of the Justices would favor Brunetti's case and would strike out trademark restrictions on "immoral" or "scandalous" material in part due to past inconsistency in the Office's application of the law, with the Office having past approved trademarks on "FCUK" and "FUBAR". The Justices raised the question of whether the implied word from "Fuct" would be considered scandalous to the clothing line's target audience of young adults, but also brought concerns that then the word would appear in advertising, which people outside of this demographic may consider inappropriate speech. The Court did express caution that others may follow suit with trademarking near matches to other well-established vulgar words, and that it should be up to Congress to define a more exacting line that otherwise does not violate the First Amendment.
The Court issued its decision on June 24, 2019, affirming the decision of the Federal Circuit Court. The majority opinion was written by Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Kagan wrote that, as the Court had found in Matal v. Tam, that the Office would need to engage in, and has engaged in, "viewpoint discrimination" to determine if trademark requests fell in to the vague definitions of "immoral" or "scandalous". With the Office as a government entity, this would be a violation of First Amendment rights, and thus decided that this portion of the Lanham Act was unconstitutional. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion, pointing out that the Court had to make this decision because of the vagueness of the "immoral" and "scandalous" terms in the law, but Congress is empowered to create law that would make a more narrow determination that removed the viewpoint discrimination concern for the Office.
Separate opinions, each dissenting in part with the majority, were written by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. The three generally felt that interpreting the "immoral" aspect of the Lanham Act was difficult, and thus agreed with the majority in striking that portion of the law. However all three felt the "scandalous" interpretation was not as vague as majority opinion suggested, and that the Office would not be engaging in viewpoint discrimination through this action. The three, along with Alito in his concurring opinion, did express concern that this decision will lead to a flood of new trademarks that would be considered crude, and the creation of public spaces that would be repugnant to some people.
- Iancu v. Brunetti, No. 18-302, 588 U.S. ___ (2019).
- Liptak, Adam (June 19, 2017). "Justices Strike Down Law Banning Disparaging Trademarks". The New York Times. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
- Chung, Andrew (April 12, 2019). "F-words and T-shirts: U.S. Supreme Court weighs foul language trademarks". Reuters. Retrieved April 12, 2019.
- Totenberg, Nina (April 16, 2019). "Supreme Court Dances Around The F-Word With Real Potential Financial Consequences". NPR. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
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- Collins, Terry (June 24, 2019). "FUCT Clothing Can Now Get Trademark Protection, Supreme Court Rules". Fortune. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
- Chung, Andrew (June 24, 2019). "Supreme Court allows foul language trademarks in F-word case". Reuters. Retrieved June 25, 2019.
- de Vogue, Adrian; Sullivan, Kate (June 24, 2019). "Supreme Court says law banning registration of 'scandalous' trademarks violates First Amendment". CNN. Retrieved June 24, 2019.