What should we do when trademarks offend?

Trademarks are symbols that convey meaning, and ostensibly that meaning is ontologically linked to the purveyor of the goods or services with which the trademark is connected. But those symbols can relate to different ontologies as well, be they freighted with racism/prejudice, religious offense, or plain old poor taste. Take for example the ongoing Redskins dispute, Muslims protesting a sacred symbol on perfume, and the weird attempt by a Malaysian company to get an Australian trademark for MH17.

The law and social advocacy step in to critique these brand owners’ selection of marks. For example, the USPTO found the Redskins marks to so disparage Native Americans that the football team should not enjoy the protections of a federal trademark registration. Ticked-off Sufis protested their holy symbol being used in a concupiscent manner. And we all sort of scratch our heads at why a company would think it should capitalize commercially on the tragedy of an airliner downed in a war zone.

But do the law and social advocacy really have any role to play here? Of course. So perhaps the more critical question is whether those roles should be primary ones. Trademarks exist to regulate commerce. More specifically, trademark law seeks primarily to ensure that a purchaser’s decision making process will be unmessed-with by others seeking to muddy that purchaser’s picture of who is providing the goods or services. If trademarks can have multiple meanings, which of course they sometimes will, shouldn’t we just let the marketplace sort that out? At the same time that trademark law is guiding a purchaser’s decision in an environment hopefully free of confusion, why not just let the sensibilities of the purchasing majority decide what products – some branded with offensive symbols while others not – be sustained?

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with trademarks, copyright, technology, the internet and new media.