A small Canadian company seems poised to take on the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) over the issue of whether the trademark it seeks to register for its vodka, LUCKY BASTARD, is scandalous, obscene or immoral.
Similar to laws in other countries, Canada’s Trade-marks Act bars the registration of marks that would offend public mores. Or at least, that’s the theory. According to s. 9(1)(j) of the Act, no mark that is “scandalous, obscene or immoral” can be adopted as a trademark. Other provisions of the statute bar both the registration (s. 12(1)(e)) and the use (s. 11) of such marks.
The decision as to what is “scandalous, obscene or immoral” is in the hands of the Registrar of Trademarks. The only guidance provided by CIPO on this issue is found in the Trademarks Examination Manual. According to the Manual,
- A scandalous word or design is one which is offensive to the public or individual sense of propriety or morality, or is a slur on nationality and is generally regarded as offensive. It is generally defined as causing general outrage or indignation.
- A word is obscene if marked by violations of accepted language inhibitions or regarded as taboo in polite usage. This word is generally defined as something that is offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality or decency; or offensive to the senses.
- A word or design is immoral when it is in conflict with generally or traditionally held moral principles, and generally defined as not conforming to accepted standard of morality.
Clearly, there is an element of subjectivity in making such assessments. In the case of the word “bastard”, it is fair to say that today it is generally considered to be a highly inappropriate term to use to refer to a child born to an unmarried mother. What is less clear is whether, used today in its more casual sense – as in the expression “lucky bastard” – it rises to the level of “causing general outrage or indignation”.
Canada has almost no case law on how to interpret and apply s. 9(1)(k). The experience in other jurisdictions has highlighted the often contentious and sometimes seemingly arbitrary approach to comparable provisions. In some cases, applicants for registration seek to use controversial words in a deliberately edgy way. In a case currently making its way through the courts in the U.S., an Asian-American dance rock band called The Slants is challenging the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office’s refusal to register their band name as a trademark. They argue that the denial or registration violates their freedom of expression. The band apparently seeks to ‘reclaim’ the otherwise derogatory term. When the trademark DYKES ON BIKES was initially denied registration in the U.S., its owners argued that the term DYKES, although derogatory in some contexts, was, when used self-referentially, had been re-appropriated and was a term of empowerment. These arguments were ultimately successful.
The arbitrariness of provisions barring the registration of trademarks on public order and morality grounds is not limited to the difficult issues around what terms are offensive and in what contexts. A quick search of the Canadian trademarks register reveals that the word “bastard” already appears in several registered trademarks, including FAT BASTARD BURRITO, DOUBLE BASTARD (for beer), PHAT BASTARD (for oysters) and FAT BASTARD (for wine). It is clear from the register that several other attempts to register marks containing the word “bastard” have been abandoned – possibly over objections to the propriety of the term.
In the U.S., challenges to the constitutionality of the equivalent U.S. provision on First Amendment (free speech) grounds have thus far failed. Courts have ruled that the provision only bars registration and not use of the mark, and therefore the right to expression oneself by using the term as an (albeit unregistered) trademark is not affected. The government remains entitled to refuse to grant a state sanctioned monopoly right to use a term that is immoral or disparaging. The constitutional issues will be under scrutiny again in the case involving The Slants, as well as in the infamous Redskins case both of which are making their way through the appellate courts in the U.S. Freedom of expression arguments in relation s. 9(1)(j) of Canada’s Trade-marks Act have yet to be tested in court. It is worth noting that in Canada it is not just registration that is denied to a “scandalous, obscene or immoral” trademark, but also adoption and use. Nevertheless, freedom of expression challenges to a similar provision in Europe have failed under the European Charter of Human Rights because of counter-balancing considerations similar to the Canadian Charter’s tolerance of “reasonable limits” placed on rights so long as they are “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.
There may well be reasons to deny registration to trademarks that clearly cross the line of what is acceptable. Our laws make it clear that discrimination and hate speech, for example, are not tolerated. Perhaps what is needed is a refocussing of the s. 9(1)(j) discretion to concentrate on trademarks that offend norms that are clearly supported by other legislation and the constitution.
The disallowance of LUCKY BASTARD should also be considered in the light of the recent controversy regarding the Edmonton football franchise’s ESKIMOS trademark. The later term is considered derogatory and disparaging of Canadian Inuit (and I note that there a great number of other trademarks on the Canadian register that contain the word “eskimo”). Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recently called for action to address the use of offensive and racist sports mascots and team names. The infamous Washington Redskins trademarks – under challenge in the U.S. – are also registered (and as yet unchallenged) trademarks in Canada. The arbitrary application of public morality clauses in trademarks law brings discredit to the system. It may also serve to highlight the extent to which some biases are so ingrained within the system that they become normalized.
If the owners of Lucky Bastard Vodka do eventually have to take their trademark fight to court it might mean that we finally get some judicial insight into the proper interpretation and application of s. 9(1)(j). This would surely be welcome.