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“TRUMP TOO SMALL” Trademark Decision Leaves Big Questions

Revisiting jurisprudence touching on the Lanham Act and the First Amendment from the Supreme Court’s decisions in Matal v. Tam and Iancu v. Brunetti, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that applying Sec. 2(c) of the Lanham Act (which bars registration of a trademark that consists of or comprises a name of a particular living individual without their written consent) may, in certain instances, unconstitutionally restrict free speech in violation of the First Amendment. In this instance, the Federal Circuit found that the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board’s (Board) refusal to register the trademark “TRUMP TOO SMALL” for use on t-shirts involved content-based discrimination that was not justified by a compelling or substantial government interest. In re: Steve Elster, Case No. 20-2205 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 24, 2022) (Dyk, Taranto, Chen, JJ.)

Steve Elster filed a US trademark application in 2018 for the mark “TRUMP TOO SMALL” (a reference to a 2016 Republican presidential primary debate exchange between then- candidate Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)) for use on shirts. The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) examining attorney, and subsequently the Board, refused registration of the mark on grounds that it clearly referred to former President Trump, and that Elster did not have written consent to use former President Trump’s name in violation of Sec. 2(c) of the Lanham Act. Sec. 2(c) requires such consent when a trademark identifies a “particular living individual.” Elster argued that his trademark aimed to convey that some features of former President Trump and his policies were diminutive and appealed the Board’s holding that Sec. 2(c) is narrowly tailored to advance two compelling government interests, namely, protecting an individual’s rights of privacy and publicity and protecting consumers against source deception.

The Federal Circuit started with a brief primer on relatively recent decisions in which the Supreme Court found certain provisions of Sec. 2(a) to be improper viewpoint discrimination because they barred registration of trademarks that were disparaging or comprised of immoral or scandalous matter. The Federal Circuit found that while neither Tam nor Brunetti resolved Elster’s appeal pertaining to Sec. 2(c), the cases did establish that a trademark represents private, not government, speech entitled to some form of First Amendment protection, and that denying a trademark registration is akin to the government disfavoring the speech being regulated. The Court then examined whether Sec. 2(c) could legally disadvantage the specific “TRUMP TOO SMALL” speech at issue in Elster’s case, and whether the government has an interest in limiting speech on privacy or publicity grounds if that speech involves criticism of government officials.

The Federal Circuit did not decide the matter on whether a trademark is a government subsidy, avoiding the somewhat varying opinions of the Supreme Court on that issue. Instead, the Federal Circuit found that Elster’s mark constituted speech by a private party for which the registration restriction must be tested by the First Amendment. Regardless of whether strict or intermediate scrutiny is applied [...]

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Don’t Be So Dramatic: True Crime Docudrama Doesn’t Violate Right of Privacy

Addressing the tension between the First Amendment and the right to privacy under New York law, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department, unanimously held that despite being partially fictionalized, a movie based on true events did not violate the privacy rights of the film’s subjects. Porco v. Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC, Case No. 531681 NY Supr. Ct, Appellate Div. Third Judicial Dept, June 24, 2021) (Fitzgerald, J.)

Christopher Porco was tried and convicted for the murder of his father and attempted murder of his mother in 2011. Lifetime Entertainment created a movie inspired by the events titled, Romeo Killer: The Chris Porco Story. Porco and his mother sued to stop the broadcast, alleging that the film (and related promotional materials) violated their rights of privacy under New York law.

Both parties moved for summary judgment on liability, with Lifetime arguing that the movie did not violate the plaintiffs’ right to privacy “because it depicted newsworthy events to which the use of their names was reasonably related.” The New York Supreme Court denied both motions, finding that questions of fact remained as to whether the depiction of events was “so materially and substantially fictitious as to give rise to liability.” The parties cross-appealed.

New York’s statutory right of privacy (Civil Rights Law §§ 50 and 51) prohibits the unauthorized use of “a living person’s name, portrait or picture . . . for advertising or trade purposes.” On appeal, the Court recognized the tension with the First Amendment, as the right of privacy does not prohibit reporting on “newsworthy events or matters of public interest, even if the reports were produced with profit in mind.” This “newsworthiness exception” is inapplicable, however, in situations where the “newsworthy or public interest aspect . . . is merely incidental to its commercial purpose” or “where the purported aim of the work is to provide biographical information of obvious public interest, but the content is substantially fictionalized.”

Porco argued that the film, a docudrama, fell within the latter category. The New York Supreme Court noted that the events depicted were “indisputably” newsworthy, but Porco contended that the movie was an “invented biography” that had “no purpose at all beyond the actionable one of exploiting their names and likenesses for profits.” The Court held that the film did not violate Porco’s rights of privacy, despite containing some fictionalizations, for two reasons. First, based on a review of materials such as the real police and media interviews with Porco and excerpts from his criminal trial, the Court concluded that the film was “broadly accurate.” Second, the film did not mislead viewers or present itself as wholly truthful, because it included the statement “based on a true story” at the beginning of the film and stated at the end that it was a “dramatization in which some names have been changed, some characters are composites and certain other characters and events have been fictionalized.” Accordingly, the Court reversed the lower court’s denial of Lifetime’s motion for [...]

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