Several years ago, Simon Tam tried to register his dance-rock band’s name as a trademark. He was blocked by US federal law and the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) on the grounds that their moniker was “disparaging” to a person or people and their “institutions, beliefs, or national symbols”. The group’s name? The Slants.
“Slant” historically has been used as a derogatory word aimed at Asian people. But Tam’s band are all Asian and have no interest in promoting discrimination whatsoever. The Portland, Oregon band appealed the decision at the federal circuit court, who ruled in Tam and The Slants’ favour, yet the PTO weren’t satisfied with this result. Instead, they asked the Supreme Court to review the case.
In an unexpected twist to the story, Tam agreed it should be looked at again. His argument? That the law was too vague. In court documents, he said the band was “intended to be a vehicle for expressing his views on discrimination against Asian-Americans”.
“We want to take on these stereotypes that people have about us, like the slanted eyes, and own them,” he said. “Everyone in the band really loves the fact that we can try and empower Asian-Americans and say ‘You know what? We are slanted. Who cares?’ We’re proud of that.”
The documents argue that other groups like N.W.A. have made similar stands of reclaiming offensive words, while it also points to words like “bitch”, “queer” and “dyke” and how they have been reappropriated by women and the LGBTQ community as having positive connotations and being, in some cases, like badges of honour. The use of the word “slant” in Tam’s band name is intended to have a similar end result – one page of the lengthy report says the group “feel strongly that Asians should be proud of their cultural heritage and not be offended by stereotypical descriptions”.
The Supreme Court have agreed to consider the case in the new court term, which begins next week. Tam will be hoping the hearing will alter the way the PTO operate in situations such as his, considering the intention behind and context in which a word is used rather than immediately writing it off as disparaging and offensive. The results could set a precedent for future cases and could also have an immediate impact on NFL team Washington Redskins, whose trademark claim is waiting to be heard in the federal circuit court after being cancelled in 2014.
As BBC News reports, an outcome from the case may not be decided on for several months.