The Lawletter Vol 38 No 9
Steve Friedman, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
The Trademark Act of 1946, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1051-1141n, commonly known as the "Lanham Act," is intended "to prevent individuals from misleading the public by placing their competitors' work forward as their own." Summit Mach. Tool Mfg. Corp. v. Victor CNC Sys., Inc., 7 F.3d 1434, 1439 (9th Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). The purpose of the Act is twofold.
First, it serves the general interest of the public by protecting consumers from false and misleading representations concerning the source, identity, or quality of a product or service. Secondly, the law protects the right of the owner of a trade or service mark to have his or her product or service identified by a distinct name or label. See Industrial Rayon Corp. v. Dutchess Underwear Corp., 92 F.2d 33, 35 (2d Cir. 1937), cert. denied, 303 U.S. 640, 58 S. Ct. 610, 82 L. Ed. 1100 (1938).
Birthright v. Birthright Inc., 827 F. Supp. 1114, 1133 (D.N.J. 1993).
Accordingly, the Lanham Act permits persons to apply to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO") for federal trademark registration of their commercial mark(s), provided that certain parameters set forth therein are satisfied. The general rule is that a distinguishable mark on commercial goods can be trademarked unless the mark falls within one of five specified categories of marks. See 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a)-(e).
One such exception is for a mark that "consists of or comprises the flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any State or municipality, or of any foreign nation, or any simulation thereof." Id. § 1052(b). Despite the seemingly straightforward exception, the City of Houston, Texas, and the District of Columbia ("District") each sought to register its official seal. See In re City of Houston, Nos. 2012-1356, 2012-1418, 2013 WL 5433432 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 1, 2013). Whereas Houston sought to trademark its city seal in connection with various municipal services, including commerce, tourism, business administration, and public utility services, the District sought to trademark its official seal to cover various items such as shirts, pens, cups, and hats.
The PTO had denied both applications, citing § 1052(b), and both decisions were affirmed by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Both municipalities appealed their respective adverse decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The appellate court decided to address the two appeals together because they raised the same question of first impression in
the courts: Can a local government entity obtain a federal trademark registration for its official insignia? Notably, although both municipalities conceded that their subject marks were insignias and argued that § 1052(b) did not preclude their registration, each municipality presented distinct theories to reach the same conclusion. As detailed below, however, the court affirmed the PTO's rejection of both theories.
Houston argued that as a governmental entity, it was not an "applicant" within the meaning of § 1052(b). Although the Lanham Act defines "applicant" to include a "juristic person," which includes any "organization capable of suing and being sued in a court of law," Houston focused on the introductory sentence providing that the Act's definitions apply "unless the contrary is plainly apparent from the context." 15 U.S.C. § 1127. Specifically, Houston argued that the context of § 1052(b) suggests that Congress intended the term "applicant" to mean something other than a governmental entity seeking to register its own seal. Rejecting Houston's argument, the court reasoned that it need not consider the "context" of § 1052(b), given that nothing in the plain and unambiguous language of § 1052(b) suggested that Houston should be exempt from the statutory prohibition. Further, the court refused to add a "silent exemption" to the statute, especially where, as here, Congress has demonstrated that it knew how to express exceptions when it intended to do so. If Houston insisted on trademarking its seal, then it would have to take up its cause with Congress rather than the courts.
The District took a different tack, relying instead on the treaty obligations of the United States, negotiated in the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property of 1883 ("Paris Convention"), as subsequently modified at Stockholm, T.I.A.S. No. 6923, 21 U.S.T. 1583, 828 U.N.T.S. 303 (July 14, 1967). In relevant part, the Paris Convention provides that "[e]very trademark duly registered in the country of origin shall be accepted for filing and protected as is in the other countries of the Union," Paris Convention art. 6 quinquies (A)(1), but specifically exempts "armorial bearings, flags, and other State emblems, of countries of the Union," id. art. 6 ter (1)(a). Rejecting the District's argument, the court reasoned that even assuming that the Lanham Act was intended to implement the obligations of the Paris Convention, the Paris Convention did not give the District any right relating to its official insignia. The "Union" referred to in the Paris Convention means "the countries that have joined in the treaty" and not "local public bodies such as municipalities." City of Houston, 2013 WL 5433432, at *7. Undisputedly, the District was not a "country of the Union," id., and thus was not entitled to the exemption. Furthermore, the treaty exemption "by its own terms applies only to trademarks that are 'duly registered in the country of origin.'" Id. (quoting art. 6 quinquies (A)(1)). Since the question presented was whether the trademark could be registered in the United States, i.e., the country of origin, invoking the Paris Convention for the answer was circular logic. Moreover, the District's argument that such an interpretation would have the effect of preventing a foreign municipality from obtaining a registered mark in the United States, in violation of the Paris Convention, failed for two reasons. Not only was the question before the court limited to whether the District, a domestic entity, was entitled to register its mark, but the court refused to decide the rights of hypothetical third parties.
Therefore, despite the creative arguments in favor of registration, the Federal Circuit affirmed the PTO's decisions denying both municipal trademark applications. Accordingly, the question of first impression has been answered: A local government entity cannot obtain a federal trademark registration for the entity's official insignia.