Professor Mark P. McKenna of The University of Notre Dame Law School is one of the leading scholars of trademark law. Below, he provides his thoughts on the legal consequences of the TTAB’s decision in Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc.
The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) just wrote another chapter in the long-running battle over the registration of the Washington Redskins trademarks. In Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., the Board cancelled 6 federal registrations of various Redskins marks (including stylized versions and logos – though not the one currently used by the team) on the ground they were disparaging to a significant proportion of Native Americans at the time of registration. As most readers of this blog likely know, this is the second time the TTAB has ordered cancellation of the marks – in 1999, after seven years of litigation, the Board cancelled the marks, finding them scandalous and disparaging. That ruling did not stand up on appeal, and the petitioners in this case are different. (Significantly, unlike the petitioner in Harjo, the petitioners’ claims here were not barred by laches.)
There are many things one could say about this ruling – about its societal significance, about the legal standard the TTAB applied (especially the focus on a “substantial composite” of the affected group), or about the likelihood that the decision with withstand appellate review. I am going to focus here on the legal consequences of the decision, assuming it stands. (The PTO will not actually remove the marks from the register until the team has exhausted its appeals.) Contrary to some of the press reports on the decision, cancellation does not entail loss of exclusivity of the marks. In particular it does not mean that the marks are not enforceable under federal law. It simply means that the marks will no longer be federally registered and therefore will not receive any of the benefits of registration.
The team will lose the benefits of the statutory presumption of validity and incontestability. And it will lose the benefit of nationwide constructive use. For many other parties, limiting protection to the geographic areas of actual use would be a significant consequence, but here that is unlikely to be important since the team very likely has nationwide rights by virtue of its actual use. Of perhaps greatest economic consequence, the government will no longer seize imported goods bearing any of the cancelled marks, since only goods bearing registered trademarks are subject to forfeiture. 19 U.S.C. § 1526. And none of the civil or criminal counterfeiting provisions will apply, as counterfeits are by definition making unauthorized use of registered marks. 15 U.S.C. § 1116; 18 U.S.C. § 2320.
These consequences are not meaningless, of course, but they are not nearly as significant as some have made them out to be. ESPN’s report, for example, claimed that the decision stripped the team of all federal rights, and that, if the decision stands, “any fan can produce and sell Washington Redskins gear without having to pay the league or the team for royalties and wouldn’t be in violation of any law for doing so.” It’s obviously not news that press reports mischaracterize legal decisions, but these kinds of statements pretty egregiously overstate things, in my view. That would be true even if there were no federal enforcement of the cancelled marks, since the logos themselves were not cancelled and any merchandise bearing both the word marks and the logos is almost certainly subject to enforcement. But it’s not even true that there will be no federal enforcement of the cancelled marks.
Of course, all of this depends on the assumption that courts do not interpret §2(a) to impose a limitation on one’s ability to enforce rights in an unregistered mark under §43(a). I would have thought that assumption was pretty uncontroversial, but some discussions of the new decision suggest that not all my colleagues in the academy share my view. One recent district court decision (Renna v. County of Union, N.J., 2014 WL 2435775, No. 2:11–3328 (D.N.J. May 29, 2014)) is on their side – that case held that marks barred from registration (in that case, under § 2(b)) could not be enforced under §43(a) either. (See here for Rebecca Tushnet’s analysis of the case). If that conclusion were generalizable, then today’s decision on the Redskins marks would have much more significant effect, since it would leave the football team with only state law rights, and those rights might be uncertain given courts’ general tendency to interpret state law as identical to federal law. But I think people are reading far too much into a single district court case, and that in any case Renna is wrong to conflate registrability under § 2 with protectability under §43(a).
Section 2 of the Lanham Act begins “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 …”. Thus, to be registrable, the claimed designation must (1) be a trademark; and (2) not run afoul of any of the limitations in subsections (a)-(f). That is to say that only a subset of trademarks qualify for registration, and the subsections of § 2 identify the boundaries of that subset. When the Lanham Act was originally drafted, it was fair to say that the limitations on registrability demarcated the universe of trademarks that warranted federal protection. When the Lanham Act was passed, it was clear that only federally registered marks were enforceable under federal law; unregistered marks could be enforced, if at all, only through a common law unfair competition claim. Thus, the unfair competition cases primarily involved unregistrable marks. As I explained here, those common law unfair competition claims were, post-Erie, state law claims. But federal courts were (probably unjustifiably) concerned that this would give rise to a lack of uniformity in the law, and beginning around the mid-1960’s they began to interpret §43(a) to embrace a cause of action for infringement of unregistered marks. In other words, they expanded the federal statute to embrace the claims that previously would have been relegated to the common law.
With this very brief history in mind, one can see just how radical is the claim that the registration bars apply in § 43(a) cases – the claim fully conflates registered and unregistered marks, applying all of the same limitations to unregistered marks despite the fact that § 43(a) was expanded specifically for the purpose of providing a federal cause of action for unregistrable marks. That would be a truly remarkable departure, and one that draws no support from the text of § 43(a), which makes actionable use of “any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which … is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection, or association of such person with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services, or commercial activities by another person.” Note that nothing in the section requires that the confusion result from use of a designation that meets the registrability requirements. There’s a reason for that.
It is therefore wrong, in my view, to say that the § 2 bars apply in § 43(a) cases, at least categorically. Nevertheless, one can understand why a court might be attracted to the argument that bars to registrability should be understood as bars to protection, full stop. After all, courts, with the active encouragement of trademark plaintiffs, have spent the last several decades eviscerating the substantive differences between trademark infringement and unfair competition. Indeed, the project has been so successful that courts and commentators alike now routinely say that registration status is largely irrelevant for purposes of enforcement. Such a sweeping claim is, of course, somewhat overstated, since registration obviously can affect priority and the geographic scope of rights in addition to the statutory presumptions and incontestability. Nevertheless, for most purposes courts have treated registered and unregistered marks the same, and the Supreme Court said in Two Pesos that “it is common ground that § 43(a) protects qualifying unregistered trademarks and that the general principles qualifying a mark for registration under § 2 of the Lanham Act are for the most part applicable in determining whether an unregistered mark is entitled to protection under § 43(a).”
I think courts that say this mean to say that the distinctiveness and functionality rules are the same for registered and unregistered marks (save for the question of which party bears the burden), and that infringement is determined the same way in either context. In this respect it is telling that these kinds of statements nearly always precede general statements of legal principles and that they rarely, if ever, accompany any real statutory analysis. The reason is that the registrability requirements and fundamental questions of trademark validity are, and have long been, understood to be distinct issues. It is not simply that trademark rights arise through use such that one can develop trademark rights without having ever applied for a trademark registration. It is that the Lanham Act imposes requirements for registrability that simply do not apply to unregistered marks. (Some of the registrability requirements – non-genericness, for example – go to validity, and those obviously do apply in §43(a) cases, but not because they are registration requirements.)
It is, of course, possible that courts would import into § 43(a) cases some particular bars to registration for policy reasons, just as common law courts might have had policy reasons to refuse to provide unfair competition remedies in particular cases. And perhaps there are good policy reasons for courts to deny protection to disparaging marks in any context. But it is worth noting that nothing has precluded parties from making these policy arguments before, and hardly anyone has done so. We have not, for example, seen defendants disputing the validity of unregistered marks on the ground that they are primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive. That could be because it has just taken a long time for litigants to discover these arguments, given how much § 43(a) has changed over time. But I think it’s much more likely that most people have assumed that arguments about registrability have no purchase in the context of enforcement of an unregistered mark.
Finally, even if one thought the § 2 bars ought to apply generally in § 43(a) cases, we should be reluctant to import the § 2(a) bars specifically, since barring enforcement of scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks raises even more serious constitutional questions than does refusing registration. Section 2(a) has occasionally been challenged on the ground that it denies government benefits on the basis of the content of speech. Courts have rejected that argument primarily on the ground that § 2 only precludes registration and does not proscribe conduct or prevent use of a mark. That reasoning has always been suspect to me, but it is significantly more questionable if it is to be understood to mean that the restrictions are constitutional simply because they do not forbid use rather than because they leave the user with the ability to rely on use-based rights. If we can expect courts to start applying the § 2(a) bars in the context of unregistered marks, we can expect to see this issue litigated much more pointedly.
Mark P. McKenna is the Associate Dean for Faculty Development, Professor of Law, and Notre Dame Presidential Fellow at the Notre Dame Law School.