Is Your Distributable Beer Brand Trademarkable?

Your beverage brand is racy, but it passes label muster thanks to the First Amendment. Can it be denied a trademark?

Can this Happy Bitch get a trademark? You bet, although the First Amendment's protections don't extend to every trademark application. Read on!
Can this Happy Bitch get a trademark? USPTO has said yes! Although the First Amendment’s protections don’t per se extend to every conceivable brand direction you may want to trademark.

Credit goes to my beer trademark law chum Alex Christian over at Davis Brown in Iowa for pointing out this nuance, which is worthy of a post of its own today. In the past, I’ve written about the issue of having a potentially trademarkable beer name or logo, yet not being able to distribute that beer because of Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) issues. That is, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) may control a brewery’s speech on labels when, for example, the label is misleading, touts the intoxicating effects of the beverage, or would be appealing to kids. More on that here. Essentially, in that scenario, a brewery might have an otherwise trademarkable piece of branding material, but be unable to obtain a COLA to put that label or beer name into interstate commerce.

Here’s a different scenario. Imagine your beer name itself is distributable. It isn’t misleading. It’s not touting the effects of alcohol. It’s not appealing to kids. Now, if the label has subjectively “racy” content, we know the First Amendment is going to kick in and protect that brewery’s speech on the label. See my post last week on the case of Flying Dog and its Raging Bitch beer label, which caused a bit of a stir with Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission, which had initially (and improperly) rejected the label, contrary to Flying Dog Brewery’s First Amendment rights.

Could it be that the reverse is also true? That is, can you have a distributable beer label or brand that is not trademarkable? Indeed. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) operates under the framework of the Lanham Act. Bear in mind that within the Lanham Act, USPTO is to refuse a mark that “[c]onsists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter . . . .” There are a few other grounds for refusal, outlined in 15 U.S.C. § 1052. In fact, readers might be aware of the ongoing matter involving the registrability of “Redskins.”

So, you might say, wait a minute. If the First Amendment protects the government from restricting labels with subjectively scandalous content, then how can USPTO refuse registrations on this sort of ground?  You might wonder, can USPTO, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), and courts applying the law really do this, without affronting First Amendment rights? So far, they can. The distinction is that, by not granting a federal trademark, the government has not prevented the party’s use of the mark. You can speak on. The use would just not be granted the presumptions and protections connected with a federal trademark. A great case on point here was the matter of 1-800-JACK-OFF, a trademark sought for services it doesn’t take much imagination to determine.

So, in sum, some trademarkable beer names are not distributable. In the reverse, some distributable beer names are trademarkable. In the case of Flying Dog Brewery, however, they do have a trademark for their “Raging Bitch” brand of brew. In fact, I was surprised to see just how crowded the field of “Bitch” marks is on alcohol beverages. Among them, we have the pure and simple “BITCH” mark, as well as a battery of marks from different owners, with most of these bitches seeming to favor wine brands. You’ll find “HAPPY BITCH” but also “CRAZY BITCH”, “NASTY BITCH”, the nautical-themed “BEACH BITCH” and then “JEALOUS BITCH”, though that “RICH BITCH” is no longer protected.

At any rate, when developing a standout product for a brewery or beverage business, it can be fun to push the boundaries with creative ingredients and processes. To match the brew’s personality or create some pop on a crowded taplist or retail shelf, it can also be tempting to push the boundaries with the brand material itself. The First Amendment does kick in to protect a brewery’s speech on its labels, allowing all kinds of vulgar things to potentially come to market. Thanks, Bill of Rights! Nevertheless, so far, to develop a brand under the protections of a federal trademark, you’ll have to keep it a bit cleaner. In fairness, although it’s still a subjective call at the end of the day, the powers that be who review trademarks take a pretty measured approach in determining whether a mark warrants refusal for these reasons under the Lanham Act. Still, for any brand owner or marketer, it’s important to know the line exists.

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