from the you bastards dept
In our recent discussion about the delightfully vulgar filing by the Washington Redskins in an effort to point out the arbitrary application of morality by the government to trademark law, the point in the filing was driven home by just how many similarly vulgar and offensive terms the USPTO has been happy to sanctify with a valid trademark. Perhaps some of you out there thought that this was a uniquely American problem, something resulting from our overabundance of political correctness. It’s not. A case in Canada over the trademark application for “Lucky Bastard Vodka” shows this quite well. It also shows the inherent problem in trying to have a government institution apply morality to business in this way.
In 2011, LB Distillers applied to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) to register “Lucky Bastard vodka” as a trademark. About eight months later, the agency responsible for trademarks, patents and copyright replied.
“The examiner came back and said it was immoral, scandalous and obscene, and that the general population of Canada would agree that it was an immoral name,” LB Distillers co-owner Cary Bowman said.
The micro-distillery’s appeal was rejected in 2012, but the company persisted, filing a separate application to register “Lucky Bastard.” On Oct. 8, CIPO sent a letter to LB Distillers stating that it “does not appear registrable” because it violates the Canadian Trade-marks Act, which prohibits trademarks that include “any scandalous, obscene or immoral word or device.”
So, here, as with the Redskins, we have a trademark office refusing a business a trademark because of the offensive nature of a word — “bastard,” in this case. Now, we could have a giant discussion over whether or not that word is truly offensive, as LB Distillers indeed tried to do with the government. Or, on the other hand, as LB Distillers also did, it could instead simply point out the blatant and glaring hypocrisy of the government’s position.
A search of the trademark database reveals several containing the word “bastard” — including Fat Bastard wine, he noted. The situation amounts to one examiner applying his or her views to the process, he said.
“When it’s one person who’s deciding the fate of something like that, and they’re basing it maybe on their own morals as opposed to anybody else’s, and yet calling it everybody else’s, that’s quite unfair.”
And, really, that’s the problem with these cases. We may think of trademark offices or government more generally as a sort of singular entity within our minds, but they’re all just ultimately made up of people. People with differing views, different sensibilities, and different tolerances for different words. With both the American and Canadian trademark provisions around offensive langauge being so open to interpretation, what ends up happening is that these examiners are left to apply their own morality to these cases, which of course means that such morality will be applied inconsistently across all applications. That’s how you get “bastard” being rejected by one examiner while it’s already been approved by others. And that’s partly why an appeals court found the part of trademark law that allows this in the US unconstitutional last week.
There are two possible solutions to this problem. The first is to harmonize the morality standards across all examiners in a trademark office so that they all apply government morality consistently. If that sounds impossible to you, it’s because it is impossible. The only workable solution is to get trademark examiners out of the morality business entirely and judge these things purely on business and commerce grounds.