Etats-Unis. Inconstitutionnalité des dispositions interdisant l’enregistrement des marques vulgaires ou immorales

Par un arrêt du 15 décembre 2017 rendu dans le cadre d’un recours contre un refus d’enregistrement d’une marque « FUCT » par l’USPTO,  la Cour d’appel pour le Circuit fédéral a jugé que la prohibition de l’enregistrement des marques immorales ou scandaleuses inscrites au Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. §1052(a)) était inconstitutionnelle au regard du Premier amendement à la Constitution US (liberté d’expression) (In Re: Brunetti, No. 2015-1109). Cette décision importante fait suite à l’arrêt de la Cour Suprême du 19 juin 2017 dans l’affaire Matal v. Tam, commentée ici, qui avait jugé inconstitutionnelle la même disposition en ce qu’elle vise les marques dénigrantes.

Rappelons que le paragraphe 1052(a) dispose :

« 1052. Une marque permettant de distinguer les produits du déposant de ceux des tiers n’est refusée à l’enregistrement au registre principal en raison de sa nature que si
a) elle se compose, en tout ou en partie, d’éléments immoraux, trompeurs ou scandaleux, ou propres à dénigrer des personnes vivantes ou décédées, des institutions, des croyances ou des symboles nationaux, à suggérer faussement un rapport avec ceux-ci, à les faire mépriser ou à les discréditer, ou encore d’une indication géographique qui, lorsqu’elle est utilisée pour des vins ou spiritueux, désigne un lieu autre que le lieu d’origine des produits, et qui est utilisée pour la première fois pour des vins ou spiritueux par le déposant un an au moins après la date à laquelle l’Accord sur l’OMC [défini à l’article 3501.9) du titre 19] entre en vigueur à l’égard des États-Unis d’Amérique; »

En l’espèce, la Cour confirme que la marque litigieuse (telle que prononcée: « fucked ») est bien vulgaire et donc, selon sa jurisprudence, scandaleuse au sens de cette disposition. Elle juge cependant que l’interdiction des marques scandaleuses ou immorales est inconstitutionnelle au regard du Premier amendement. A la suite de l’arrêt Matal v. Tam de la Cour Suprême, le gouvernement fédéral avait tenté de faire valoir que cette décision n’impliquait pas l’annulation des dispositions concernant les marques scandaleuses ou immorales, dans la mesure où l’interdiction des marques dénigrantes constitue une discrimination fondée sur le point de vue (l’opinion) exprimé par l’auteur du discours (viewpoint discrimination), là où celle des marques scandaleuses ou immorales est indépendante de ce point de vue (viewpoint neutral). La Cour, tout en exprimant un doute sur cette dernière qualification, juge qu’indépendamment de cette distinction la disposition constitue une discrimination fondée sur un contenu (content discrimination) contraire au Premier amendement. Elle rejette notamment l’assimilation de la marque à un pur discours de nature commerciale, moins protégé par le Premier amendement (c’est-à-dire soumis à un test moins strict de conformité):

« Commercial speech is speech which does “no more than propose a commercial transaction.” Va. State Bd. of Pharmacy v. Va. Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 748, 762 (1976) (citation omitted). Trademarks certainly convey a commercial message, but not exclusively so. There is no doubt that trademarks “identify the source of a product or service, and therefore play a role in the ‘dissemination of information as to who is producing and selling what product, for what reason, and at what price.’” Tam, 808 F.3d at 1338 (quoting Va. State Bd. of Pharmacy, 425 U.S. at 765). However, trademarks— including immoral or scandalous trademarks—also “often have an expressive content.” Tam, 137 S. Ct. at 1760. For immoral or scandalous marks, this message is often uncouth. But it can espouse a powerful cause. See, e.g., FUCK HEROIN, Appl. No. 86,361,326; FUCK CANCER, Appl. No. 86,290,011; FUCK RACISM, Appl. No. 85,608,559. It can put forth a political view, see DEMOCRAT.BS, Appl. No. 77,042,069, or REPUBLICAN.BS, Appl. No. 77,042,071. While the speech expressed in trademarks is brief, “powerful messages can sometimes be conveyed in just a few words.” Tam, 137 S. Ct. at 1760. (…)

Section 2(a) regulates the expressive components of speech, not the commercial components of speech, and as such it should be subject to strict scrutiny. See Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 564 U.S. 552, 565 (2011). There is no dispute that § 2(a)’s bar on the registration of immoral or scandalous marks is unconstitutional if strict scrutiny applies. « 

En toute hypothèse, pour la Cour la disposition demeurerait inconstitutionnelle même si la marque était assimilée à un discours de nature commerciale:

« Commercial speech is subject to a four-part test which asks whether (1) the speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the asserted government interest is substantial; (3) the regulation directly advances that government interest; and (4) whether the regulation is “not more extensive than necessary to serve that interest.” Central Hudson, 447 U.S. at 566; see also Bd. of Tr. of State Univ. of N.Y. v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469, 479–80 (1989 (…)

The immoral or scandalous provision clearly meets the first prong of the Central Hudson test, which requires we first confirm the speech “concern lawful activity and not be misleading.” (…)

Central Hudson’s second prong, requiring a substantial government interest, is not met. The only government interest related to the immoral or scandalous provision that we can discern from the government’s briefing is its interest in “protecting public order and morality.” (…)

Whichever articulation of the government’s interest we choose, the government has failed to identify a substantial interest justifying its suppression of immoral or scandalous trademarks. (…)

First, the government does not have a substantial interest in promoting certain trademarks over others. (…) 

Second, Supreme Court precedent makes clear that the government’s general interest in protecting the public from marks it deems “off-putting,” whether to protect the general public or the government itself, is not a substantial interest justifying broad suppression of speech. (…) The Supreme Court’s decision in Tam supports our conclusion that the government’s interest in protecting the public from off-putting marks is an inadequate government interest for First Amendment purposes. (…)

Finally, the government does not have a substantial interest in protecting the public from scandalousness and profanities. (…) The government’s interest in protecting the public from profane and scandalous marks is not akin to the government’s interest in protecting children and other unsuspecting listeners from a barrage of swear words over the radio in Pacifica. A trademark is not foisted upon listeners by virtue of its being registered. Nor does registration make a scandalous mark more accessible to children. Absent any concerns that trademark registration invades a substantial privacy interest in an intolerable manner, the government’s interest amounts to protecting everyone, including adults, from scandalous content. But even when “many adults themselves would find the material highly offensive,” adults have a First Amendment right to view and hear speech that is profane and scandalous. Playboy, 529 U.S. at 811 (First Amendment right to view “sexually explicit adult programming or other programming that is indecent”); Sable, 492 U.S. at 115 (“Sexual expression which is indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment.”). (…)

Even if we were to hold that the government has a substantial interest in protecting the public from scandalous or immoral marks, the government could not meet the third prong of Central Hudson, which requires the regulation directly advance the government’s asserted interest. 447 U.S. at 566. As the government has repeatedly exhorted, § 2(a) does not directly prevent applicants from using their marks. Regardless of whether a trademark is federally registered, an applicant can still brand clothing with his mark, advertise with it on the television or radio, or place it on billboards along the highway. In this electronic/Internet age, to the extent that the government seeks to protect the general population from scandalous material, with all due respect, it has completely failed.

Finally, no matter the government’s interest, it cannot meet the fourth prong of Central Hudson. The PTO’s inconsistent application of the immoral or scandalous provision creates an “uncertainty [that] undermines the likelihood that the [provision] has been carefully tailored.” See Reno, 521 U.S. at 871.  » [La cour donne plusieurs exemples sur ce point]

 

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