By Jason H. Kasner

The United States Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in a case that may significantly alter the face of trademark law for the second time in less than two years.

The case, Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director, Patent and Trademark Office v. Erik Brunetti, addresses a portion of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act which authorizes the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) to refuse registration of “immoral . .  or scandalous” marks.

The USPTO refused to register the trademark “FUCT” for various clothing items on this basis, and Erik Brunetti, the owner of the “FUCT” mark, appealed the refusal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  The appeals court struck down the ban on “immoral” and “scandalous” marks, noting that, despite the “vulgar” nature of the “FUCT” trademark, “[t]he First Amendment, however, protects private expression, even private expression which is offensive to a substantial composite of the general public.”  The U.S. government appealed this decision to the Supreme Court which must now determine whether the USPTO may continue to refuse registration to marks it considers “immoral” and/or “scandalous.”

Many will recall the repercussions of the 2017 Supreme Court case, Matal v. Tam, which found a section of the statute allowing the USPTO to refuse trademark registration for “disparaging” marks (Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act) to be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.  Although that particular case addressed the USPTO’s refusal to register the mark “The Slants” by members of a rock band (who are Asian-American) by the same name, the fallout from that decision famously brought to a close the long-standing battle between the Washington Redskins and the USPTO by removing the statutory ban on registration for the term REDSKINS.

In sum, the government’s position in the current case is that “immoral” and/or “scandalous” marks can be treated differently than “disparaging” marks and the Slants decision is not conclusive of whether the statutory ban on “immoral” and/or “scandalous” marks is facially unconstitutional. Brunetti argues that the same principles of free speech that led to the removal of the ban on “disparaging” marks should likewise apply to “immoral” and/or “scandalous” marks.  That is the question now before the Supreme Court.

If the U.S. loses the appeal, the long-standing ban on registration of “immoral” and/or “scandalous” marks will be lifted, and a flood of trademark applications to register sexually explicit, vulgar and profane marks will likely follow. Trademark owners should be aware that a backlog of the examination of pending trademarks is likely while the USPTO deals with this influx.  The decision may open the door for trademark owners with arguably “immoral,” “scandalous” or “vulgar” marks to finally enjoy the full benefits of a federal trademark registration and enhance their ability to protect their brands.