In re Tam

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
Citation808 F.3d 1321
Docket NumberNo. 2014–1203.,2014–1203.
Parties In re Simon Shiao TAM.
Decision Date22 December 2015

Ronald D. Coleman, Archer & Greiner, P.C., Hackensack, NJ, argued for appellant. Also represented by Joel Geoffrey MacMull ; John C. Connell, Haddonfield, NJ; Darth M. Newman, Martin Law Firm LLC, Pittsburgh, PA.

Daniel Tenny, Appellate Staff, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, argued for appellee Michelle K. Lee. Also represented by Benjamin C. Mizer, Mark R. Freeman, Joshua Marc Salzman ; Nathan K. Kelley, Thomas W. Krause, Molly R. Silfen, Christina Hieber, Thomas L. Casagrande, Office of the Solicitor, United States Patent and Trademark Office, Alexandria, VA.

Lee Rowland, Speech, Privacy & Technology, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, New York, NY, argued for amici curiae American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area. Also represented by Esha Bhandari, Brett Max Kaufman ; Arthur B. Spitzer, American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, Washington, DC; Mathew W. Dos Santos, ACLU of Oregon, Portland, OR.

Jeffrey Joseph Lopez, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Washington, DC, for amici curiae Amanda Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs–Cloud, Phillip Gover, Jillian Pappan, Courtney Tsotigh. Also represented by Jesse A. Witten.

Megan Leef Brown, Wiley Rein, LLP, Washington, DC, for amici curiae Cato Institute, The Rutherford Institute. Also represented by Christopher J. Kelly, Joshua S. Turner, Jennifer L. Elgin, Dwayne D. Sam ; Cato Institute also represented by Ilya Shapiro, Cato Institute, Washington DC; The Rutherford Institute also represented by Douglas R. McKusick, John W. Whitehead, Charlottesville, VA.

Marc J. Randazza, Randazza Legal Group, Las Vegas, NV, for amicus curiae First Amendment Lawyers Association. Also represented by Ronald D. Green, Jr.

Charanjit Brahma, Troutman Sanders LLP, San Francisco, CA, for amici curiae Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, South Asian Bar Association of Washington, DC. National Asian Pacific American Bar Association also represented by George C. Chen, Bryan Cave LLP, Phoenix, AZ.

Hugh C. Hansen, Fordham University School of Law, New York, NY, as amicus curiae pro se.

Lawrence Kurt Nodine, Ballard Spahr LLP, Atlanta GA, for amicus curiae International Trademark Association. Also represented by Robert D. Carroll, Goodwin Procter LLP, Boston, MA.

Robert Lloyd Raskopf, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, New York, NY, for amicus curiae Pro–Football, Inc. Also represented by Sanford Ian Weisburst, Todd Anten.

Phillip R. Malone, Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic, Mills Legal Clinic, Stanford Law School, Stanford, CA, for amicus curiae Public Knowledge. Also represented by Jeffrey Theodore Pearlman.

Richard L. Stanley, Law Office of Richard L. Stanley, Houston TX, for amicus curiae Richard L. Stanley.


Opinion for the court filed by Circuit Judge MOORE, in which Chief Judge PROST and Circuit Judges NEWMAN, O'MALLEY, WALLACH, TARANTO, CHEN, HUGHES, and STOLL join.

Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge O'MALLEY, in which Circuit Judge WALLACH joins.

Opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part filed by Circuit Judge DYK, in which Circuit Judges LOURIE and REYNA join with respect to parts I, II, III, and IV.

Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge LOURIE.

Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge REYNA.

MOORE, Circuit Judge.

Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act bars the Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO") from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks. 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a). The government enacted this law—and defends it today—because it disapproves of the messages conveyed by disparaging marks. It is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that the government may not penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message it conveys. That principle governs even when the government's message-discriminatory penalty is less than a prohibition.

Courts have been slow to appreciate the expressive power of trademarks. Words—even a single word—can be powerful. Mr. Simon Shiao Tam named his band THE SLANTS to make a statement about racial and cultural issues in this country. With his band name, Mr. Tam conveys more about our society than many volumes of undisputedly protected speech. Another rejected mark, STOP THE ISLAMISATION OF AMERICA, proclaims that Islamisation is undesirable and should be stopped. Many of the marks rejected as disparaging convey hurtful speech that harms members of oft-stigmatized communities. But the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech.

The government cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks. It cannot refuse to register marks because it concludes that such marks will be disparaging to others. The government regulation at issue amounts to viewpoint discrimination, and under the strict scrutiny review appropriate for government regulation of message or viewpoint, we conclude that the disparagement proscription of § 2(a) is unconstitutional. Because the government has offered no legitimate interests justifying § 2(a), we conclude that it would also be unconstitutional under the intermediate scrutiny traditionally applied to regulation of the commercial aspects of speech. We therefore vacate the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board's ("Board") holding that Mr. Tam's mark is unregistrable, and remand this case to the Board for further proceedings.

I. The Lanham Act

Congress enacted the Lanham Act in 1946 to provide a national system for registering and protecting trademarks used in interstate and foreign commerce. Congress's purpose in enacting the Lanham Act was to advance the two related goals of trademark law. First, the purpose of the Lanham Act is to "protect the public so it may be confident that, in purchasing a product bearing a particular trade-mark which it favorably knows, it will get the product which it asks for and wants to get." Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S. 763, 782 n. 15, 112 S.Ct. 2753, 120 L.Ed.2d 615 (1992) (Stevens, J., concurring) (quoting S.Rep. No. 791333, at 3 (1946)). Second, the Lanham Act ensures that a markholder can protect "his investment from ... misappropriation by pirates and cheats." Id.; see also Inwood Labs., Inc. v. Ives Labs., Inc., 456 U.S. 844, 854 n. 14, 102 S.Ct. 2182, 72 L.Ed.2d 606 (1982) ("By applying a trademark to goods produced by one other than the trademark's owner, the infringer deprives the owner of the goodwill which he spent energy, time, and money to obtain. At the same time, the infringer deprives consumers of their ability to distinguish among the goods of competing manufacturers." (citations omitted)).

"Registration is significant. The Lanham Act confers important legal rights and benefits on trademark owners who register their marks." B & B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Ind., Inc., ––– U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 1293, 1300, 191 L.Ed.2d 222 (2015) (quotation marks omitted). These benefits—unavailable in the absence of federal registration—are numerous, and include both substantive and procedural rights. The holder of a federal trademark has a right to exclusive nationwide use of that mark where there was no prior use by others. See 15 U.S.C. §§ 1072, 1115. Because the common law grants a markholder the right to exclusive use only in the geographic areas where he has actually used his mark, see 5 J. Thomas McCarthy, McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition § 26:32 (4th ed.) (hereinafter "McCarthy"), holders of a federally registered trademark have an important substantive right they could not otherwise obtain. Also, a registered mark is presumed to be valid, 15 U.S.C. § 1057(b), and the mark becomes incontestable (with certain exceptions) after five years of consecutive post-registration use, id. § 1065; see also B & B Hardware, 135 S.Ct. at 1310 ("Incontestability is a powerful protection."). A markholder may sue in federal court to enforce his trademark, 15 U.S.C. § 1121, and he may recover treble damages if he can show infringement was willful, id. § 1117. He may also obtain the assistance of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in restricting importation of infringing or counterfeit goods, id. § 1124, 19 U.S.C. § 1526, and qualify for a simplified process for obtaining recognition and protection of his mark in countries that have signed the Paris Convention, see id. § 1141b (Madrid Protocol); Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property art. 6 quinquies, July 14, 1967, 21 U.S.T. 1583, 828 U.N.T.S. 305. Lastly, registration operates as a complete defense to state or common law claims of trademark dilution. 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(6).

Under the Lanham Act, the PTO must register source-identifying trademarks unless the mark falls into one of several categories of marks precluded from registration. Id. § 1052 ("No trademark by which the goods of the applicant may be distinguished from the goods of others shall be refused registration on the principal register on account of its nature unless...." (emphasis added)). Many of these categories bar the registration of deceptive or misleading speech, because such speech actually undermines the interests served by trademark protection and, thus, the Lanham Act's purposes in providing for registration. For example, a mark may not be registered if it resembles a registered mark such that its use is likely to "cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive," § 2(d), or if it is "deceptively misdescriptive," § 2(e). These restrictions on registration of deceptive speech do not run afoul of the First Amendment. See Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub....

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22 cases
  • In re Elster
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
    • February 24, 2022
    ...Tam and Brunetti were before this court, we held that trademark registration is not a government subsidy. See In re Tam , 808 F.3d 1321, 1348–54 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc); In re Brunetti , 877 F.3d 1330, 1342–45 (Fed. Cir. 2017).In any event, even if a trademark were a government subsidy, ......
  • Matal v. Tam
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 19, 2017
    ...of the referenced group would find the term objectionable." Ibid.DSimon Tam is the lead singer of "The Slants." In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321, 1331 (C.A.Fed.2015) (en banc), as corrected (Feb. 11, 2016). He chose this moniker in order to "reclaim" and "take ownership" of stereotypes about people......
  • Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio v. Himes, 16-4027
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • April 18, 2018
    ...upon [the plaintiff's] waiver of its right to engage in protected speech activity with its private funds."); see also In re Tam , 808 F.3d 1321, 1348–50 (Fed. Cir. 2015), as corrected (Feb. 11, 2016), aff'd sub nom. Matal v. Tam , ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S.Ct. 1744, 198 L.Ed.2d 366 (2017) ("The ......
  • In re Brunetti, 2015-1109
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
    • December 15, 2017
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1 firm's commentaries
  • The CCPA's Lasting Impact On U.S. Patent Law: Part 1
    • United States
    • Mondaq United States
    • July 11, 2022
    ...(CCPA 1953), or any other precedent of this court suggests or holds to the contrary, it is expressly overruled."). See also, In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321, FN1 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc) ("To be clear, we overrule In re McGinley, 660 F.2d 481 (C.C.P.A. 1981), and other precedent insofar as they ......
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  • The Public Policy Argument Against Trademark Licensee Estoppel and Naked Licensing.
    • United States
    • Missouri Law Review Vol. 85 No. 4, September 2020
    • September 22, 2020
    ...187, 191 (2004). (45.) 15 U.S.C. [section] 1115 (2018). (46.) In Re McGinley, 660 F.2d 481, 484 (C.C.P.A. 1981), abrogated by In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. (47.) Bell v. Harley Davidson Motor Co., 539 F. Supp. 2d 1249 (S.D. Cal. 2008). (48.) 15 U.S.C. [section] 1115(b); United States ......
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    • United States
    • ABA General Library Landslide No. 11-6, July 2019
    • July 1, 2019
    ...(E.D. Va. 2015); Boswell v. Mavety Media Grp. Ltd., 52 U.S.P.Q.2d 1600, 1609 (T.T.A.B. 1999). 27. 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017). 28. In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2015). 29. Id. at 1333–34. 30. Tam , 137 S. Ct. at 1765. 31. Id. at 1751. 32. Id. at 1763. 33. Id. at 1758 (“If the federal regis......
  • Evolutionary Tales: Times of the Best and Worst
    • United States
    • ABA General Library Landslide No. 10-1, September 2017
    • September 1, 2017
    ...which did not survive “the strict scrutiny review appropriate for government regulation of message or viewpoint.” In re Tam , 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc), aff’d sub nom. Matal v. Tam , 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017). The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the constitutional issue in t......
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    • June 22, 2020 part). Whether a mark that is unregistrable federally may be registered at the state level is not entirely clear. Compare In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321, 1344 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc), with id. at 1375 (Lourie, J., (27.) Everything I have said about federal trademark registration, thus far, ......
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