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Asian-American Band Fights To Trademark Name 'The Slants'

Publication Date: 
October 20, 2013
National Public Radio (NPR) - Code Switch
Kat Chow

NPR quotes Stanford Law Professor Mark Lemley on how a law meant to prevent the trademarking of racial slurs could affect minority groups as the meanings of words change.

The Slants, a six-member band from Portland, Ore., calls their sound "Chinatown Dance Rock" — a little bit New Order, a little bit Depeche Mode. They describe themselves as one of the first Asian-American rock bands. Their music caters to an Asian-American crowd, they've spoken at various Asian-American events, and they're proud of all of it.

But the Slants have been duking it out with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) over the past four years because of their name. The PTO refused the band's two trademark applications, saying that "slants" is a disparaging term for people of Asian descent. Now the band plans to take their case to a federal circuit court.


Some say that the law, which was enacted in 1946, doesn't always account for intent. Mark Lemley, a professor of intellectual property law at Stanford Law School and director of Stanford's Law, Science & Technology program, says it's ironic if that bit of trademark law affects people — especially minorities — who are trying to reclaim a phrase.

"I don't think anybody who wrote the act in 1946 had the idea that minority groups would be claiming these terms as a badge of honor and repurposing them," Lemley said.


But that, too, could be a tough sell, according to Lemley. "Trademark law cares a lot about what consumers think, and so if the way people in the marketplace are likely to understand the term [is] as a reference to Asians, then that's the way trademark law will treat it," Lemley said. "It may actually have another meaning, but if people don't recognize that meaning, it doesn't matter."


That strategy might not be such a bad idea, Lemley, the Stanford intellectual property law professor.

"Were the band to sue the government and say, 'You've improperly denied me this benefit on the content of my speech,' I think they'd have a pretty good case," Lemley said.