Descriptive Trademarks and the First Amendment

Tennessee Law Review, Vol. 70, p. 1095, 2003

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY LAW REVIEW, Vol. 36, p. 271, Karen B. Tripp, ed., West Publishing, 2004

San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 06-13

83 Pages Posted: 24 May 2005  

Lisa P. Ramsey

University of San Diego School of Law

Abstract

The protection of exclusive rights in descriptive trademarks is an unconstitutional restriction of speech under the First Amendment. Trademark laws that prohibit a competitor from using trademarked descriptive words to sell a product fail to satisfy the Central Hudson test for evaluating the constitutionality of commercial speech regulations. The use of a descriptive term to accurately describe a product is not misleading expression regardless of whether another business claims trademark rights in that term. Although the government has a substantial interest in protecting the ability of consumers to identify and distinguish among the products of a business and its competitors, descriptive trademark laws do not directly advance this interest and are more extensive than necessary. Descriptive marks do not identify the source of a product as well as a mark that is fanciful, arbitrary, or suggestive because descriptive marks retain their original descriptive meaning. As descriptive marks quickly and cheaply provide consumers with information regarding the attributes of a product, protecting exclusive rights in such marks does not directly and materially further trademark law's goal of helping consumers identify and distinguish among the products of competing manufacturers. Current trademark law also stifles the free flow of commercial information more than necessary when it protects exclusive rights both in inherently distinctive marks and descriptive marks. The consumer-oriented goals of trademark law are satisfied if the government grants and enforces trademark rights only in inherently distinctive marks.

Keywords: trademark, descriptive trademarks, first amendment, Central Hudson

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Ramsey, Lisa P., Descriptive Trademarks and the First Amendment. Tennessee Law Review, Vol. 70, p. 1095, 2003; INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY LAW REVIEW, Vol. 36, p. 271, Karen B. Tripp, ed., West Publishing, 2004; San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 06-13. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=728572

Lisa P. Ramsey (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States

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