June 20, 2014

The USPTO and Offensive Trademark Applications

In the wake of the the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's revocation of the Washington Redskins' trademark, ATL offers a post discussing comparably offensive brand names. Some were denied the USPTO's blessing, others were okay. For instance, my personal fave, Heeb Media was rejected, as were apparel company names JAP and SPIC. On the other hand, the "Squaw" in Squaw Valley Development Company was perfectly fine, and high-class men's magazine Black Tail was summarily approved. While it would likely be on the losing end of a legal battle today, the Coon Chicken Inn (a restaurant with several franchises) operated for some 25 to 30 years in the mid-1900s. I haven't touched on applications for brand names that contain Dyke and FAG, but you might be surprised by some of the rulings. Or perhaps not.

Generally speaking, I am somewhat conflicted by the idea that the USPTO can, or should, strip the Redskins of their trademark protections. Legally, they seem to be on solid ground. But censorship seems like the wrong way to go. Oh sure, it's no problem when you are offended by the offensive words. But conceptually it's a slippery slope premised on the idea that words and ideas can be too dangerous to be addressed on their merits. One minute it's the blatantly racist name "Redskins" (that seemingly bothered virtually no one other than Native Americans until about five minutes ago), which we can all agree ought to go, but the next thing you know, it's a politically unorthodox idea that's being suppressed. You see where I'm going with this.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a libertarian (and have no love for the Ayn Rand Paul school of thought, which defines real liberty as stopping the government from stoppieng corporate America from trampling the rest of us). But I do think we are all adults, capable of hearing, considering, and responding to all sorts of ideas, bad words, and what have you, without fainting away.

Sure, the name is offensive and owner Dan Snyder's insistence on hanging onto it indicates the sort of thickheadness that has made him a running joke in the NFL. But it would be nice to see public pressure force the NFL into action, much like it forced the NBA to finally respond to years of Donald Sterling's overt racism. So I'm on the fence on this one.

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