Portland, Oregon-based Asian-American rock band, dubbed “Chinatown dance-rock,” The Slants are taking their trademark battle to federal court. Comprised of Simon Young (bass), Tyler Chen (drums), Will Moore (lead guitar), Thai Dao (guitar/keys), and Ken Shima (vocals), the quintet has tried for years to trademark “The Slants,” but has been rejected twice by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Band founder and leader Simon Tam (who’s stage name is Simon Young) formally applied for a trademark in 2010, but a trademark examiner rejected the application, saying that a substantial portion of the Asian-American community would be offended. Tam tried again in 2011, dropping the “reclaiming a stereotype” position and arguing that there is nothing inherently racist about the word “slants.” The same trademark examiner again rejected the application.
“I consider the name a point of cultural pride,” he continues. “One of the first things people say is that we have slanted eyes. I thought, ‘What a great way to reclaim that stereotype and take ownership of it,’ and, in doing so, take away the power from those who try to use it as a term of hate. Our band uses our name to refer to our perspectives and experiences in life as people of color. It’s our “slant,” if you will – and we choose to empower others that way.”
On Friday, The Slants’ attorney argued to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board lacks the constitutional authority to decide whether a mark is “disparaging” or “scandalous” and therefore unworthy of registration. Furthermore, he argued that the U.S. Trademark Office denied Tam due process when it copy and pasted old arguments and evidence from the band’s first abandoned application into the second.
Tam, who is also a public speaker on issues of race, has done three TED Talks on issues of racism, the power of language, as well as the trademark problems his band is facing. He is also currently booked to deliver keynote speeches and featured presentations at Stanford University, University of Indiana, and Portland State University. His TED Talks can be viewed at:
“Give Racism a Chance: Simon Tam at TEDxSpokane” (with specific references to Ferguson, black-white relations, and The Slants’ trademark): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0ruIuwb8vw
“A new slant on racism: Simon Tam at TEDxUofW” (dealing with systematic racism) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLmNLWqSl8Y
“Your life has a word count limit – Make every word count | Simon Tam | TEDxSalem” (on the power of language) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxVScODgtk0
“In the wake of Ferguson, Eric Garner being choked to death by a police officer, and other cases of racial discrimination surfacing daily, inequality based on racial lines had never seemed more prominent. Yet despite the unrest, it seems that people would rather ignore the racial climate or the larger system of inequality that most people go through,” says Tam, discussing his latest TED Talk. “I first thought of the title for my talk, ‘Give Racism a Chance,’ when I got into a heated argument with a longtime friend. He argued that racism was a thing of the past, that ours was a country of equal opportunity even though he knew that our band’s trademark was being denied because of my ethnicity. Like climate change or other major issues facing our world, I wanted to spell it out: we shouldn’t be wasting time arguing about whether racism exists or not. It does – we need to use our time to focus on actually addressing inequality. But most people don’t respond to the raw statistics, so I decided to combine the bigger picture with a few personal stories.”
The band’s latest album, The Yellow Album, furthers their quest for ethnic pride and awareness. The juxtaposition of a tongue-in-cheek album title and some deeply serious songs reflect a band who can still embrace pain and hurt with a punk rock swagger.
“[Our battle with the trademark office] has made international headlines, especially as people try to understand why the Trademark Office would make such a big deal of it despite issuing out trademark registrations to groups like N.W.A, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, or hundreds of other (non-Asian) trademarks for the term ‘slant,’” says Tam. “The actions of the trademark office were clearly racist – but they continue to defend their decision because they forgot what racism actually means. For marginalized communities, such as Asian Americans, re-appropriation can be a powerful tool to fight systemic racism and that’s what The Slants is doing with our name.”
Previously, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it will defend the constitutionality of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act against similar claims being pursued by the Washington Redskins in district court. Both cases come amid the backdrop of a U.S. Supreme Court that has taken an increasingly hard line on viewpoint discrimination. Just last month the high court decided to review whether the government can withhold vanity license plates on the ground of their offensive character.
During Friday’s arguments, Judge Kimberly Moore described the seminal decision upholding Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act as outdated, cursory and a candidate for en banc review in light of “an immense evolution of Supreme Court jurisprudence on this point.”
Tam has spent more than $10,000 in legal fees. The lawyers are arguing his case pro bono, but he still can’t afford the court fees his latest appeal will add. As such, Tam has set up a GoFundMe account to help with the court fees: www.gofundme.com/g0olao
The government regulator told Tam to drop the case, stating that the band can still call itself The Slants, even without a trademark. But, Tam says, “To me that’s like saying you can still ride the bus, you’ve just got to sit in the back. You can have the name, but have fewer rights than anyone else. That only made me want to fight even harder.”
A decision from the Federal Court should arrive by April (six to eight weeks). Depending on the outcome, the case may advance to the Supreme Court.
NBC News and Reuters have both recently picked up the story: