The question of whether a would-be trademark, “TRUMP TOO SMALL,” warrants a First Amendment exception to the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registering a living person’s name as a trademark without that person’s permission has now reached the United States Supreme Court. On June 5, 2023, in Vidal v. Elster, Case 22-704, the high court granted the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (hereinafter, the “Government”) petition for certiorari to determine whether, under 15 U.S.C. § 1052(c), the refusal to register a trademark containing another person’s name violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment when that mark implies criticism of a government official or public figure. As we wrote last year, one cannot normally trademark another person’s name, but in the case of Steve Elster’s trademark application for TRUMP TOO SMALL, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the “CAFC”) held in In re Elster, 26 F.4th 1328, 2022 USPQ2d 195 (Fed. Cir. 2022), that one’s First Amendment right to make social commentary about a public figure trumps (bad pun intended) the Lanham Act. Whether the Supreme Court agrees with the CAFC soon will be determined.
In our first post we discussed what a trademark is and how business owners can strengthen the protection of their trademarks. But, obtaining a trademark registration is just the first step—you also need to monitor your trademark to make sure no one else is using it, or a confusingly similar trademark, without your permission. Trademark infringement occurs when another business or individual uses your trademark, or a similar mark, in a way that is likely to confuse or deceive consumers about the source of the goods or services. This can be detrimental to your business by both diluting your brand and causing you to lose customers. This post explores some of the best methods business owners can employ to monitor their trademarks.
As a business owner, you have invested time, money, and effort into creating a brand that represents your company and sets it apart from competitors. Protecting your investment through registering and enforcing your trademark plays an essential role in ensuring your efforts were not in vain. Without proper protection, your trademark, and by extension, your brand, may be vulnerable to infringement or dilution by competitors, resulting in loss of customers, revenue, and reputation. This is the first in a series of articles discussing how business owners can protect and enhance the goodwill developed in their brand.
Interesting question: Can someone trademark another person’s name without that person’s consent? The answer to that is usually “no,” but, hey, we would not be the first people to say that we live in interesting times. And if we said that, we would not be infringing on anyone’s rights. That aside, the answer to the first question this week is “yes,” at least when the person is a public figure, and the trademark is viewed as an exercise of free speech critical of that public figure.
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