Portland, Oregon-based Asian American rock band, The Slants, received some disappointing news this week when the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Federal Circuit upheld a US Patent and Trademark Office’s decision that the band’s name could not be trademarked on the grounds that it is being used as a racial slur that a majority of the public would find disparaging. The Federal Circuit court agreed in the majority opinion, citing the Patent Office’s Appeal Board decision where they decided that the name The Slants “would have the ‘likely meaning’ of people of Asian descent but also that such meaning has been so perceived and has prompted significant responses by prospective attendees or hosts of the band’s performances.”
In 1946, the federal government passed the Lanaham Act, the principle legislation that governs the registration of trademarks. Among other stipulations, the Act prohibits the registration of any trademark that “consists of or comprises of immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute”. Federal Circuit courts have previously interpreted this to include racial slurs such as “Heeb”, “Squaw Valley”, and — of course — the “Washington Redskins” (which is currently on appeal).
However, Simon Tam — founder of The Slants who tweets at @SimonTheTam — argued that despite the popular usage of the phrase “slants” as a slur when referencing Asian Americans, the band name was intended to be a subversive reappropriation of an epithet as part of their larger project to “take ownership” of anti-Asian stereotypes.