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T.M.E.P. § 1203.01
Immoral or Scandalous Matter

Executive summary:

This document contains one section of the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (the "TMEP"), Fourth Edition (April 2005). This page was last updated in June 2007. You may return to one either the section index, or to the key word index. If you wish to search the TMEP, simply use the search box that appears on the bottom of every page of BitLaw--be sure to restrict your search to the TMEP in the pop-up list.

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1203.01 Immoral or Scandalous Matter

Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), is an absolute bar to the registration of immoral or scandalous matter on either the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register.

Although the words "immoral" and "scandalous" may have somewhat different connotations, case law has included immoral matter in the same category as scandalous matter. See In re McGinley, 660 F.2d 481, 484 n.6, 211 USPQ 668, 672 n.6 (C.C.P.A. 1981), aff'g 206 USPQ 753 (TTAB 1979) ("Because of our holding, infra, that appellant's mark is 'scandalous,' it is unnecessary to consider whether appellant's mark is 'immoral.' We note the dearth of reported trademark decisions in which the term 'immoral' has been directly applied.")

The prohibition against the registration of marks that consist of or comprise immoral or scandalous matter was originally enacted as §5(a) of the Trademark Act of 1905, and was reenacted as part of §2(a) of the Act of 1946. There is little legislative history concerning the intent of Congress with regard to the provision; therefore, the term "scandalous" is interpreted by looking to "its ordinary and common meaning." In re Riverbank Canning Co., 95 F.2d 327, 328, 37 USPQ 268, 269 (C.C.P.A. 1938). This may be established by referring to court decisions, decisions of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board and dictionary definitions. In re McGinley, 660 F.2d at 485, 211 USPQ at 673.

In affirming a refusal to register a mark as scandalous under §2(a), the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals noted dictionary entries that defined "scandalous" as, inter alia, shocking to the sense of propriety, offensive to the conscience or moral feelings or calling out for condemnation. In re McGinley, 660 F.2d at 486, 211 USPQ at 673 (mark comprising a photograph of a nude, reclining man and woman, kissing and embracing, for a "newsletter devoted to social and interpersonal relationship topics" and for "social club services," held scandalous). The statutory language "scandalous" has also been considered to encompass matter that is "vulgar," defined as "lacking in taste, indelicate, morally crude." In re Runsdorf, 171 USPQ 443, 444 (TTAB 1971). See also In re Tinseltown, Inc., 212 USPQ 863, 864 (TTAB 1981) (BULLSHIT, which the Board termed "profane," held scandalous for "accessories of a personal nature, ... attachˇ cases, hand bags, purses, belts, and wallets").

The meaning imparted by a mark must be determined in the context of the current attitudes of the day. See In re Mavety Media Group Ltd., 33 F.3d 1367, 31 USPQ2d 1923 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (evidence found insufficient to establish that BLACK TAIL used on adult entertainment magazines comprises scandalous matter; court noted that there were both vulgar and non-vulgar definitions of "tail," and that the record was devoid of evidence demonstrating which of these definitions a substantial composite of the general public would choose in the context of the relevant marketplace); In re Old Glory Condom Corp., 26 USPQ2d 1216 (TTAB 1993) (OLD GLORY CONDOM CORP and design comprising the representation of a condom decorated with stars and stripes in a manner to suggest the American flag held not to be scandalous); In re Thomas Laboratories, Inc., 189 USPQ 50, 52 (TTAB 1975) ("[I]t is imperative that fullest consideration be given to the moral values and conduct which contemporary society has deemed to be appropriate and acceptable.")

The determination of whether a mark is scandalous must be made in the context of the relevant marketplace for the goods or services identified in the application, and must be ascertained from the standpoint of not necessarily a majority, but a "substantial composite of the general public." In re McGinley, 660 F.2d at 485, 211 USPQ at 673 ("[T]he Lanham Act does not require, under the rubric of 'scandalous,' any inquiry into the specific goods or services not shown in the application itself."); In re Wilcher Corp., 40 USPQ2d 1929 (TTAB 1996) (mark for restaurant and bar services consisting of words DICK HEADS positioned directly underneath caricature of a human head composed primarily of graphic and readily recognizable representation of male genitalia held scandalous, as it would be considered offensive by a substantial portion of the public); Greyhound Corp. v. Both Worlds Inc., 6 USPQ2d 1635, 1639 (TTAB 1988) (graphic design of a dog defecating, as applied to polo shirts and T-shirts, held scandalous, given the broad potential audience that may view applicant's mark in sales establishments and "virtually all public places"); In re Hepperle, 175 USPQ 512 (TTAB 1972) (while the words might be a reference to marijuana, ACAPULCO GOLD found not scandalous when used as a mark for suntan lotion); .

Therefore, to support a refusal on the ground that a proposed mark is immoral or scandalous, the examining attorney must provide evidence that a substantial portion of the general public would consider the mark to be scandalous in the context of contemporary attitudes and the relevant marketplace. In re Mavety Media, 33 F.3d at 1371-1372, 31 USPQ2d at 1925. This evidence could include dictionary definitions, newspaper articles and magazine articles.

Dictionary definitions alone may be sufficient to establish that a proposed mark comprises scandalous matter, where multiple dictionaries, including at least one standard dictionary, all indicate that a word is vulgar, and the applicant's use of the word is limited to the vulgar meaning of the word. In re Boulevard Entertainment, Inc.,334 F.3d 1336, 67 USPQ2d 1475 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (1-800-JACK-OFF and JACK OFF held scandalous, where all dictionary definitions of "jack-off" were considered vulgar).

It has been noted that the threshold is lower for what can be described as "scandalous" than for "obscene." Refusal to register immoral or scandalous matter has been found not to abridge First Amendment rights, because no conduct is proscribed and no tangible form of expression is suppressed. Also, the term "scandalous" has been held sufficiently precise to satisfy due process requirements under the Fifth Amendment. In re McGinley, 660 F.2d at 484-85, 211 USPQ at 672.

The prohibition in §2(a) of the Act against the registration of scandalous matter pertains only to marks that are scandalous. The authority of the Act does not extend to goods that may be scandalous. See In re Madsen, 180 USPQ 334, 335 (TTAB 1973) (WEEK-END SEX for magazines held not scandalous, the Board observing that whether the magazine contents may be pornographic was not an issue before the Board).

The examining attorney may look to the specimen(s) or other aspects of the record to determine how the mark will be seen in the marketplace. See In re McGinley, 660 F.2d at 482 n.3, 211 USPQ at 670 n.3 (containing excerpts from appellant's newsletters pertaining to their subject matter); In re Hershey, 6 USPQ2d 1470, 1472 (TTAB 1988) (BIG PECKER BRAND for T-shirts found not scandalous, the Board considering the labels that were submitted as specimens in determining the question of how the mark might be perceived. "[T]he inclusion of the bird design would make it less likely that purchasers would attribute any vulgar connotation to the word mark and we note that it is proper to look to the specimens of record to determine connotation or meaning of a mark.")

To ensure consistency in examination with respect to immoral or scandalous matter, when an examining attorney believes, for whatever reason, that a mark may be considered to comprise such matter, the examining attorney must consult with his or her supervisor.