The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) denied registration of several US trademark applications for the mark FUCK, even though the applicant had overcome a prohibition on the registration of “immoral or scandalous” trademarks as a violation of the First Amendment in the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Iancu v. Brunetti. The applicant also had previously secured registration of the mark FUCT. The PTO nevertheless denied registration on grounds that the familiar curse word did not function as a trademark. In re: Brunetti, Ser. Nos. 88308426; 88308434; 88308451; 88310900 (TTAB Aug. 22, 2022) (Bergsman, Dunn, Lebow, Administrative Trademark Judges).

The Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (Board) issued a precedential decision affirming the PTO’s refusal to register the FUCK mark for a variety of goods and related services, including cellphone cases, sunglasses, jewelry, watches, bags and wallets. The Board found that the word FUCK expresses well-recognized sentiments and that consumers are accustomed to seeing the word in widespread use by many different sources. As a result, the word failed to create the commercial impression of a source indicator and therefore failed to function as a trademark to distinguish the goods from others.

BACKGROUND

Artist and entrepreneur Erik Brunetti applied to register the mark FUCK in relation to a wide variety of wearable goods, electronics accessories and related retail, marketing and business services in 2019 while his appeal to the Supreme Court regarding the FUCT mark was still pending. When the Supreme Court issued its decision, the FUCK applications were removed from suspension and could no longer be refused on grounds that the mark comprised “immoral or scandalous” material. The PTO examining attorney re-examined the applications and refused registration on the so-called “failure to function” ground, finding that the mark was a term that did not function as a trademark to indicate the source of the applicant’s goods or services and to identify and distinguish them from others. Brunetti appealed to the Board.

In response to Brunetti’s argument that there was no statutory basis for a failure to function refusal, the Board made clear that the PTO is statutorily constrained to register a mark on the Principal Register “if and only if it functions as a mark.” Matter that does not operate to indicate the source or origin of the identified goods or services and distinguish them from those of others does not meet the statutory definition of a trademark and may not be registered. The Board reminded applicants that not every designation adopted with the intention that it perform a trademark function necessarily accomplishes that purpose.

Matter may be merely informational and fail to function as a trademark if it is a common term or phrase that consumers are accustomed to seeing used by various sources to convey ordinary, familiar or generally understood concepts or sentiments. The critical inquiry in determining whether a proposed mark functions as a trademark is how the relevant public perceives it.

The Board described the Examining Attorney’s evidence supporting the failure to function [...]

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