Earlier this month, the Supreme Court hear arguments in a case that will decide the fate of a federal prohibition against granting trademark protection to immoral or scandalous material. The case Iancu v. Brunetti involves a lawsuit initiated by Los Angeles street artist Erik Brunetti who sought to challenge the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s decision not to register the trademark for his “FUCT” clothing line. His application had been denied, as deputy solicitor general Malcolm Stewart, who was defending the law, delicately put it, because it “would be perceived by a substantial segment of the public as the equivalent of the profane past participle form of. . . perhaps the paradigmatic word of profanity in our language.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit struck down the century-old ban on granting trademark protection to “scandalous” and “immoral” trademarks reasoning that the ban constituted a First Amendment violation. In its December 15, 2017 decision, the Federal Circuit found that the board was correct in determining that the trademark was immoral or scandalous but that the statute’s “bar on registering immoral or scandalous marks is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.” The Department of Justice wants the Supreme Court to reverse that decision.
The Supreme Court expressed disdain for the public display of vulgarity but seemed reluctant to use federal trademark law to stop it. The government cannot stop Brunetti from selling his wares, Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco told the court in the government’s petition and the Justice Department conceded at oral argument, also taking time to highlight the fact that Brunetti’s clothing was available even in children’s and infants’ sizes. The Justice Department attempted to frame the issue, however, not as to whether Brunetti could sell the clothing but whether the mark deserves federally registered status. Continue reading ›