The Constitutional Limitation on Trademark Propertization
53 Pages Posted: 23 Nov 2013 Last revised: 2 Jun 2015
Date Written: November 22, 2013
The following article seeks to apply the retrenchment in constitutional Commerce Clause jurisprudence of the last few decades to the phenomenon of trademark propertization, the expansive and largely federal movement towards protecting trademarks as assets apart from any connection to referent goods and services. Trademark scholars have filled the trademarks literature with critiques of propertization that generally object, on policy and historical grounds, to the trend and offer constructions of the Lanham Act designed to check its progress. With the notable exception of an article published in 2000 by Professor Kenneth Port, however, the literature has largely avoided addressing the question of whether the United States Congress possesses the authority to push trademark law so far in that direction.
Building off of Barton Beebe’s semiotic account of trademark law, the article observes that much of the Commerce Clause case law in the trademark space is muddied by the failure to draw an analytic distinction between the trademark as such (i.e., the trademark’s signifier) and the goods and services with which it is used. Moreover, many of the seminal cases in the area predate such important new contributions to Commerce Clause jurisprudence as United States v. Lopez, Gonzalez v. Raich and even last year’s health care decision, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sibelius.
Upon close review of these and other recent precedents, and a thorough application of contemporary, three-category Commerce Clause analysis to trademark propertization, the article concludes that there is, and should be, a firm constitutional limit to Congresses’ ability to regulate trademark signifiers detached from goods and services. Namely, Congress may not recognize or protect a property interest in trademarks as such except as a rational means of furthering the regulation of referent goods or services. Although distant and unreachable in most cases, this constitutional ceiling serves as a critical constructional limit on certain controversial trademark doctrines like dilution and the rule against assignments in gross, and prevents the U.S. Congress from ever recognizing pure trademarks in the abstract as property upon creation. Although a complete defense of trademark “localism” is outside of the article’s scope, it ends by offering some basic policy and structural justifications for accepting this limit on federal authority in the trademark sphere.
Keywords: trademarks, trademark propertization, commerce clause, constitution, trademark expansion, Lanham Act
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