Simon Tam, founding member of the All-Asian punk rock band, the Slants, gave a powerful speech about Trademarks and race at the Intellectual Property Year in Review CLE this past week in Oregon.* Simon intertwined the practical significance of Trademarks with how bureaucrats at the Trademark Office are making race-based decisions that disparately impact minority groups in the name of protecting those very minority groups from disparagement.
If you have never heard Simon speak, you should find a way to hear him. He is a powerful speaker. He speaks from the heart in an intelligent and logical way that makes every audience member an instant fan – not necessarily of his music, but of Simon Tam the person.
Simon’s trademark application for THE SLANTS has been in contention for approximately eight years. He has battled through the USPTO, including the TTAB, then the Federal Circuit, then the Federal Circuit en banc, and finally now to the Supreme Court. Oral arguments were recently held January 18, 2017. The Supreme Court has not yet issued its decision as of the writing of this post.
In his talk, Simon gave great context as to why he was fighting. His personal story is impressive, and his sense of justice and equality drives has guided him through this journey.
What is hard to understand is why the Obama administration fought Simon so hard, and with so much gusto. At the very time they were filing briefs to block his registration, other parts of the administration were hiring Simon and his band for minority outreach programs. Simon talked about how he and his band even performed for NATO troops in Kosovo. Simon juxtaposed these issues in a way that crystalized the hypocrisy of the government’s position in way that gives much more context beyond what can be extracted from the court records. The case itself seems to have taken on a life of its own and what is lost is the real issue of how the USPTO effectively discriminates against minorities in a disparate way in granting federal registration rights.
Simon had an interesting graph where he talked about how the more "Asian" his band was, the less likely the government would approve his application.
Whatever you think of the legal issues, its hard not to feel a true sense of wrong in how he has been treated. We will see what the Supreme Court has to say on this issue soon.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I was on the planning committee that helped organize the CLE topics.