The U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated the statutory bar against the federal registration of disparaging trademarks, on the ground that it violates the First Amendment and is unconstitutional. What does this mean for businesses in general, including, in particular, broadcasters and the Washington DC National Football League franchise?

History of the Case

The case involved an application by Simon Tam to register the mark THE SLANTS for an Asian-American band. Mr. Tam selected the name in order to make a statement about racial and cultural issues. The federal Lanham (Trademark) Act states that a trademark shall not be denied registration unless, among other reasons, it:

Consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.

Accordingly, the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) denied the application on the basis that, regardless of Mr. Tam’s intent, the phrase “THE SLANTS” may be disparaging to a substantial percentage of persons of Asian descent. The PTO also stated that it was bound by a 1981 precedent issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, holding that the statute was constitutional.
Continue Reading “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word?” Supreme Court Allows the Federal Registration of Disparaging Trademarks

Less than a week ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association filed a trademark infringement action in federal court against a company that runs online sports-themed promotions and contests under the marks “April Madness” and “Final 3.”  The NCAA is seeking injunctive relief, damages, the defendant’s profits, punitive damages and an award of attorneys’ fees.

Last year, I wrote about the risks of publishing ads or engaging in promotional activities that “play off” the NCAA Collegiate Basketball Playoffs.  Clearly, such activities continue to carry great risks.  Accordingly, I am republishing last year’s blog post on this subject:

It’s March Madness!  Know the NCAA’s Rulebook or Risk A Foul Call Against the Unauthorized Use of Its Trademarks

With the NCAA Basketball Tournament about to begin, broadcasters, publishers and other businesses need to be wary about potential claims arising from their use terms and logos associated with the tournament, including March Madness,® The Big Dance,® Final Four® or Elite Eight,® each of which is a federally registered trademark.

The NCAA Aggressively Polices the Use of its Trademarks

It has been estimated that, last year, the NCAA earned $900 million in revenue associated with the NCAA Basketball tournament.  Moreover, its returns from the tournament have historically grown each year.  Most of this income comes from broadcast licensing fees.  It also has a substantial amount of revenue from licensing March Madness® and its other marks for use by advertisers.  As part of those licenses, the NCAA agrees to stop non-authorized parties from using any of the marks.  Indeed, if the NCAA did not actively police the use of its marks by unauthorized companies, advertisers might not feel the need to get a license or, at least, to pay as much as they do for the license.  Thus, the NCAA has a strong incentive to put on a full court press to prevent non-licensees from associating their goods and services with the NCAA tournament through unauthorized use of its trademarks.
Continue Reading It’s March Madness! … It’s April Madness! … Be Wary of Using the NCAA’s Trademarks

Last year, we posted some guidelines about engaging in or accepting advertising or promotions that directly or indirectly alludes to the Super Bowl without a license from the NFL. We are at that time of year again, so here is an updated version of our prior post.

In addition to the monies it receives annually for the right to broadcast the Super Bowl, the NFL receives more than $1 billion in income from licensing the use of the SUPER BOWL trademark and logo. Not surprisingly, is extremely aggressive in protecting its golden goose from anything it views as unauthorized efforts to trade off the goodwill associated with the game. Accordingly, with the coin toss almost upon us, advertisers need to take special care before publishing ads or engaging in promotional activities that refer to the Super Bowl. Broadcasters and other news publishers have latitude to use the phrase “Super Bowl” in their news and other editorial content, but they need to wary of engaging in activities, particularly in advertising and promotion, that the NFL may view as trademark or copyright infringement. (These risks also apply to the use of “Final Four” or “March Madness” in connection with the upcoming NCAA Basketball Tournament.)

Simply put, the NFL views any commercial activity that uses or refers to the Super Bowl to draw attention as a violation of its trademark rights. Many of the activities challenged by the league undoubtedly deserve a yellow flag. However, the NFL’s rule book defines trademark violations very broadly. If anyone were willing to throw the red flag to challenge the league’s position, a review from the booth might reverse some of those calls.
Continue Reading As Super Bowl Approaches, Advertisers Should Be Aware of The NFL’s Efforts to Protect Its Golden Goose – 2017 Update

It’s the holiday season, and many of us are turning our thoughts to celebrating with friends and family. It is also high season for shopping, which means the airwaves, social media, websites and print pages are full of opportunities to buy, sell, and advertise. Whether you consider that to be a feature or a bug,

Almost every week, we write about some legal issue that arises in digital and social media – many times talking about the traditional media company that did something that they shouldn’t have done in the online world, and ended up with some legal issues as a result. Two weeks ago, I conducted a webinar, hosted by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters and co-sponsored by over 20 other state broadcast associations, where I tried to highlight some of the many legal issues that can be traps for the unwary. Issues we discussed included copyright and trademark issues, a reminder about the FTC sponsorship identification rules for online media, FCC captioning obligations, privacy implications, as well as discussions about the patent issues that have arisen with the use of software and hardware that makes the digital transmission of content possible. Slides from that presentation are available here and, for the full webinar, a YouTube video of the entire presentation is available below which can be reviewed when you have some spare time over this upcoming holiday or at any other time that you want to catch up on your legal obligations.

Some of the specific issues that we talked about are familiar to readers of this blog. We discussed the many issues with taking photographs and other content found on the Internet and repurposing them to your own website without getting permission from the content’s creator (see our articles here and here). Similar issues have arisen when TV stations have taken YouTube videos and played them on their TV stations without getting permission from the creator. Music issues arise all the time, especially in producing online videos and creating digital content like podcasts, as your usual music licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR and SoundExchange don’t cover the reproduction and distribution rights involved when content is copied or downloaded rather than live-streamed (see our article here). The presentation also cautioned companies to be careful about trying to rely on “fair use” as there are no hard and fast rules on when a use of copyrighted materials without permission is in fact fair (see our articles here and here on that subject).

Similarly, there are many other potential pitfalls for digital media companies. We’ve written about some of the FTC rules on requiring sponsorship identification on sponsored digital content – even tweets and Facebook posts (see our articles here and here). Plus, there are always issues about privacy and security of personal information that sites collect – and particularly strict rules for content directed to children. And, as many stations found out when a company asserted patent infringement claims about digital music storage systems used by most radio stations (see our articles here and here), patent issues can also arise in connection with any companies use of digital media.
Continue Reading Legal Issues in Digital and Social Media – Identifying the Landmines for Broadcasters and Other Media Companies – A Video Webinar

As David Oxenford has previously commented, even in states where marijuana has been legalized, broadcasters should be cautious about accepting advertising for marijuana or related paraphilia.  Specifically, decisions by the FDA and the Department of Justice have done little to cut through the smoke shrouding the issue.  Now, perhaps the last United States agency that one might expect to have anything to say has weighed in as well, but the haze remains thick.

Specifically, the US Patent and Trademark Office is not viewed as a policy-making agency, charged with making decisions about what activities or behavior are permissible or impermissable.  Rather, it determines whether trademarks qualify for federal protection through registration, considering issues such as the distinctiveness of a mark and whether it is confusingly similar to a previously registered mark.  As we have discussed in our Trademark Basics for Broadcasters series and our follow-up free webinar, although the various factors seem cut and dried, there is often a great amount of subjectivity and discretion that goes into evaluating each factor.
Continue Reading Accepting Advertising for Marijuana or Marijuana Paraphernalia:  The Trademark Office Rules on a Related Issue that Provides More Reason For Caution

Tomorrow afternoon eastern time, I will be conducting a webinar for at least 20 state broadcast associations on legal issues for broadcasters in their social and digital media efforts.  We’ll talk about many of the potential legal landmines that can be hidden in these new media efforts, many of which we have written about

The protection of brands, slogans, positioning statements and program titles must be a high priority of any electronic media company. These assets establish the identity of any broadcaster, webcaster or other media company.  Media companies need to protect these assets through the rights accorded by trademark law.  We have been running a series of articles

With Election Day finally upon us, we wait in anticipation (and with a fair amount of nail biting) as the fate of our country is decided. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some trademark fun, looking at how law and trademarks can collide. But first, a reminder — don’t forget to dial into our upcoming Trademark Basics webinar, Tuesday, November 15th at 1pm Eastern Time for a live overview of the many issues we have discussed in the last few weeks. Register here today!

And now, back to the law. Even seasoned politicians can get into trademark trouble when crafting their campaign branding strategies. We’ve summarized three somewhat amusing cases below as an Election Day stress reliever!

  • One Quacky Dispute. Tim Hagan, a former candidate for the for governor of Ohio, ran a campaign against incumbent Governor Robert Taft riffing off of the famed “AFLAC DUCK” commercials, in which a white duck repeatedly quacks the AFLAC insurance company’s name in a distinctive, nasal tone. Hagan’s internet commercials included a crudely animated character made up of Governor Taft’s head sitting on the body of a white cartoon duck, with the duck quacking “TaftQuack” several times during each commercial. Hagan broadcast these commercials on his website, www.taftquack.com. The insurance company thought it was no quacking matter and filed a lawsuit in an Ohio district court. The court ultimately determined that the use of this character or the AFLAC marks did not constitute trademark infringement because the ads constituted core political speech warranting First Amendment protection.


Continue Reading Trademark Tuesday, Election Day Special – Trademark Tales from the Campaign Trail

Over the last few weeks, we’ve offered insights about how you can stay out of legal hot water by establishing good practices with regard to your company’s trademark portfolio (see Part 5 of our Trade Basics series here, which contains links at the end to the other parts of the series). Unfortunately, not all companies have followed such wisdom. With Halloween just around the corner, we thought you might appreciate some Tips and Tales from the Trademark Crypt!

To help you avoid becoming another trademark horror story, don’t forget to dial into our upcoming Trademark Basics webinar, November 15th at 1pm Eastern Time for a live overview of the many issues we have discussed in the last few weeks. Register here today!

  • Searching Proposed Descriptive Marks. We have previously discussed how descriptive marks may become protectable as trademarks if they acquire what is known as “secondary meaning.” Just because a mark is descriptive doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t conduct a trademark search. In 1984, the manufacturer of GATORADE® beverages decided to use the slogan “Gatorade is Thirst Aid.” Its in-house counsel concluded that “Thirst Aid” was merely descriptive and therefore did not run a search before approving the slogan. A search would have revealed that the mark THIRST-AID® had been in use since 1921 and had been registered since 1950 in connection with soft drink products. The owner of the THIRST-AID® mark filed a trademark infringement claim and ultimately was awarded in excess of $10,000,000 in damages.
  • Running Down All Potential Impediments. Due diligence means more than running a trademark search. It means taking appropriate action to run down possible impediments before proceeding. In one case, a company named “Big O” used the marks “Big O Big Foot 60” and “Big O Big Foot 70” for tires, but its application to register BIG FOOT as a trademark was denied. Subsequently, Goodyear began using BIG FOOT for snowmobile tracks and, later, for tires. It ran a trademark search and concluded that there were no conflicting marks. It is not clear, but, most likely, the person who reviewed the search saw Big O’s abandoned application, but may not have tried to determine whether the mark was still in use. (It should be noted, however, that in 1974, the ability to locate marks that were in use, but were not registered, was far more limited than today.) In any event, a jury awarded Big O $2.8 million in damages (which was reduced to $678,302 on appeal) and $16.8 million in punitive damages (which was reduced to approximately $4.1 million on appeal).
  • Running Down All Potential Impediments – Part 2. Many companies translate their marks into Spanish for purposes of marketing to the Hispanic community. Even with a well-established trademark, a search should be conducted for the translated mark. Several months ago, a trademark infringement action was filed against Kentucky Fried Chicken for using “Para chuparse los dedos” on the basis that it is the Spanish-language translation of “Finger Lickin’ Good.” The plaintiff owns a restaurant in Southern California and has a registration for a logo that contains the identical phrase, “Para Chuparse Los Dedos,” which it says translates to “To Lick Your Fingers” in English. (We offer no comment on the possible outcome of this litigation, but mention it to illustrate the need for a thorough and competent trademark search before using almost any new mark.)
  • Clearing Advertising Copy. Famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer has reportedly been involved with at least 100 legal actions over his famous catchphrase LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE® and claims to have never lost a case. Unfortunately, many radio stations and other media outlets have used the phrase without authorization (presumably without first consulting counsel), with many not aware that the catchphrase is legally protected, and have ended up on the receiving end of a cease and desist letter from Buffer’s attorney. At least one station was brought to court and was held liable for $175,000 worth of damages, while other awards have ranged from four to six figures.


Continue Reading Trademark Basics, Halloween Special: Tips and Tales From the Trademark Crypt