Matal v. Tam

Citation137 S.Ct. 1744,198 L.Ed.2d 366
Decision Date19 June 2017
Docket NumberNo. 15–1293.,15–1293.
Parties Joseph MATAL, Interim Director, United States Patent and Trademark Office, Petitioner v. Simon Shiao TAM.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

137 S.Ct. 1744
198 L.Ed.2d 366

Joseph MATAL, Interim Director, United States Patent and Trademark Office, Petitioner
Simon Shiao TAM.

No. 15–1293.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Jan. 18, 2017.
Decided June 19, 2017.

Malcolm L. Stewart, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

John C. Connell, Haddonfield, NJ, for Respondent.

Sarah Harris, General Counsel, Nathan K. Kelley, Solicitor, Thomas W. Krause, Deputy Solicitor, Christina J. Hieber, Thomas L. Casagrande, Molly R. Silfen, Mary Beth Walker, Associate Solicitors, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Alexandria, VA, Ian Heath Gershengorn, Acting Solicitor General, Benjamin C. Mizer, Principal Deputy Assistant, Attorney General, Malcolm L. Stewart, Deputy Solicitor General, Nicole A. Saharsky, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Douglas N. Letter, Mark R. Freeman, Daniel Tenny, Joshua M. Salzman, Attorneys, Ian Heath Gershengorn, Acting Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Stuart Banner, Eugene Volokh, UCLA School of Law, Supreme Court Clinic, Los Angeles, CA, John C. Connell, Ronald D. Coleman, Joel G. MacMull, Archer &

137 S.Ct. 1751

Greiner, P.C., Haddonfield, NJ, for Respondent.

Justice ALITO announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III–A, and an opinion with respect to Parts III–B, III–C, and IV, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice THOMAS, and Justice BREYER join.

This case concerns a dance-rock band's application for federal trademark registration of the band's name, "The Slants." "Slants" is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent, and members of the band are Asian–Americans. But the band members believe that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they will help to "reclaim" the term and drain its denigrating force.

The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the application based on a provision of federal law prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may "disparage ... or bring ... into contemp[t] or disrepute" any "persons, living or dead." 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a). We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.



"The principle underlying trademark protection is that distinctive marks—words, names, symbols, and the like—can help distinguish a particular artisan's goods from those of others." B & B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Industries, Inc., 575 U.S. ––––, ––––, 135 S.Ct. 1293, 1299, 191 L.Ed.2d 222 (2015) ; see also Wal–Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Brothers, Inc., 529 U.S. 205, 212, 120 S.Ct. 1339, 146 L.Ed.2d 182 (2000). A trademark "designate [s] the goods as the product of a particular trader" and "protect[s] his good will against the sale of another's product as his." United Drug Co. v. Theodore Rectanus Co., 248 U.S. 90, 97, 39 S.Ct. 48, 63 L.Ed. 141 (1918) ; see also Hanover Star Milling Co. v. Metcalf, 240 U.S. 403, 412–413, 36 S.Ct. 357, 60 L.Ed. 713 (1916). It helps consumers identify goods and services that they wish to purchase, as well as those they want to avoid. See Wal–Mart Stores, supra, at 212–213, 120 S.Ct. 1339 ; Park ‘N Fly, Inc. v. Dollar Park & Fly, Inc., 469 U.S. 189, 198, 105 S.Ct. 658, 83 L.Ed.2d 582 (1985).

"[F]ederal law does not create trademarks." B & B Hardware, supra, at ––––, 135 S.Ct., at 1299. Trademarks and their precursors have ancient origins, and trademarks were protected at common law and in equity at the time of the founding of our country. 3 J. McCarthy, Trademarks and Unfair Competition § 19:8 (4th ed. 2017) (hereinafter McCarthy); 1 id., §§ 5:1, 5:2, 5:3; Pattishall, The Constitutional Foundations of American Trademark Law, 78 Trademark Rep. 456, 457–458 (1988); Pattishall, Two Hundred Years of American Trademark Law, 68 Trademark Rep. 121, 121–123 (1978); see Trade–Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82, 92, 25 L.Ed. 550 (1879). For most of the 19th century, trademark protection was the province of the States. See Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S. 763, 780–782, 112 S.Ct. 2753, 120 L.Ed.2d 615 (1992) (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment); id ., at 785, 112 S.Ct. 2753 (THOMAS, J., concurring in judgment). Eventually, Congress stepped in to provide

137 S.Ct. 1752

a degree of national uniformity, passing the first federal legislation protecting trademarks in 1870. See Act of July 8, 1870, §§ 77–84, 16 Stat. 210–212. The foundation of current federal trademark law is the Lanham Act, enacted in 1946. See Act of July 5, 1946, ch. 540, 60 Stat. 427. By that time, trademark had expanded far beyond phrases that do no more than identify a good or service. Then, as now, trademarks often consisted of catchy phrases that convey a message.

Under the Lanham Act, trademarks that are "used in commerce" may be placed on the "principal register," that is, they may be federally registered. 15 U.S.C. § 1051(a)(1). And some marks "capable of distinguishing [an] applicant's goods or services and not registrable on the principal register ... which are in lawful use in commerce by the owner thereof" may instead be placed on a different federal register: the supplemental register. § 1091(a). There are now more than two million marks that have active federal certificates of registration. PTO Performance and Accountability Report, Fiscal Year 2016, p. 192 (Table 15), documents/USPTOFY16PAR.pdf (all Internet materials as last visited June 16, 2017). This system of federal registration helps to ensure that trademarks are fully protected and supports the free flow of commerce. "[N]ational protection of trademarks is desirable," we have explained, "because trademarks foster competition and the maintenance of quality by securing to the producer the benefits of good reputation." San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm., 483 U.S. 522, 531, 107 S.Ct. 2971, 97 L.Ed.2d 427 (1987) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Park 'N Fly, Inc., supra, at 198, 105 S.Ct. 658 ("The Lanham Act provides national protection of trademarks in order to secure to the owner of the mark the goodwill of his business and to protect the ability of consumers to distinguish among competing producers").


Without federal registration, a valid trademark may still be used in commerce. See 3 McCarthy § 19:8. And an unregistered trademark can be enforced against would-be infringers in several ways. Most important, even if a trademark is not federally registered, it may still be enforceable under § 43(a) of the Lanham Act, which creates a federal cause of action for trademark infringement. See Two Pesos, supra, at 768, 112 S.Ct. 2753 ("Section 43(a) prohibits a broader range of practices than does § 32, which applies to registered marks, but it is common ground that § 43(a) protects qualifying unregistered trademarks" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).1 Unregistered trademarks may also be entitled to protection under other federal statutes, such as the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d). See

137 S.Ct. 1753

5 McCarthy § 25A:49, at 25A–198 ("[T]here is no requirement [in the Anticybersquatting Act] that the protected ‘mark’ be registered: unregistered common law marks are protected by the Act"). And an unregistered trademark can be enforced under state common law, or if it has been registered in a State, under that State's registration system. See 3 id., § 19:3, at 19–23 (explaining that "[t]he federal system of registration and protection does not preempt parallel state law protection, either by state common law or state registration" and "[i]n the vast majority of situations, federal and state trademark law peacefully coexist"); id., § 22:1 (discussing state trademark registration systems).

Federal registration, however, "confers important legal rights and benefits on trademark owners who register their marks." B & B Hardware, 575 U.S., at ––––, 135 S.Ct., at 1317 (internal quotation marks omitted). Registration on the principal register (1) "serves as ‘constructive notice of the registrant's claim of ownership’ of the mark," ibid. (quoting 15 U.S.C. § 1072 ); (2) "is ‘prima facie evidence of the validity of the registered mark and of the registration of the mark, of the owner's ownership of the mark, and of the owner's exclusive right to use the registered mark in commerce on or in connection with the goods or services specified in the certificate,’ " B & B Hardware, 575 U.S. at ––––, 135 S.Ct., at 1300 (quoting § 1057(b) ); and (3) can make a mark " ‘incontestable’ " once a mark has been registered for five years," ibid . (quoting §§ 1065, 1115(b) ); see Park 'N Fly, 469 U.S., at 193, 105 S.Ct. 658. Registration also enables the trademark holder "to stop the importation into the United States of articles bearing an infringing mark." 3 McCarthy § 19:9, at 19–38; see 15 U.S.C. § 1124.


The Lanham Act contains provisions that bar certain trademarks from the principal register. For example, a trademark cannot be registered if it is "merely descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive" of goods, § 1052(e)(1), or if it is so similar to an already registered trademark or trade name that it is "likely ... to...

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