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Self-Disparaging Trademarks and Social Change: Factoring the Reappropriation of Slurs into Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act

Todd Anten
Columbia Law Review
Vol. 106, No. 2 (Mar., 2006), pp. 388-434
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4099495
Page Count: 47
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Self-Disparaging Trademarks and Social Change: Factoring the Reappropriation of Slurs into Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act
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Abstract

Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act bars the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) from registering trademarks that "may disparage" a group of people. What happens, however, when an applicant seeking to register a trademark containing a slur is also a member of that disparaged group? Many applicants have applied to register such "self-disparaging" trademarks featuring arguably reappropriated slurs, from lesbians seeking to register DYKES ON BIKES, to an African American seeking to register NIGGA, to a Jew seeking to register THE BIG HEEB BREWING COMPANY. Under the current regime, applicants for these self disparaging marks are treated identically to any other applicant. However, such an approach commits two serious errors: (1) It overlooks the important role that the reappropriation of slurs plays in disarming historically hateful speech and fostering a healthy self-identity; and (2) it ignores the fact that a self-disparaging mark's mere existence automatically raises evidentiary doubts about whether that mark is truly disparaging to the referenced group. This Note argues that the PTO's current approach to gauging whether a mark is disparaging does not adequately consider the special circumstances of self-disparaging marks, and proposes that examining attorneys should no longer be permitted to deny an application to register a trademark solely because the mark is self-disparaging.

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