Nov 1, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court seems likely to reject "Trump too small" trademark

Photo of the Supreme Court building

The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed likely to rule against a California man who tried to trademark the phrase "Trump too small."

The big picture: Federal law prohibits trademarks that use a living person's name without that person's consent. Both liberal and conservative justices appeared inclined to uphold that standard.

Details: The case involves California lawyer Steve Elster's efforts to sell t-shirts that say "Trump too small."

  • The U.S. trademark office denied his request for a trademark for the phrase, which he appealed.
  • He said the denial limited his First Amendment rights.

But some of the justices seemed more concerned during oral arguments Wednesday that allowing one person to trademark a specific line of political criticism would be the bigger First Amendment threat.

"Presumably, there will be a race for people to trademark, you know, 'Trump Too this,' 'Trump Too that,' whatever, and then particularly in an area of political expression, that really cuts off a lot of expression other people might regard as important infringement on their First Amendment rights," Chief Justice John Roberts said, according to the court's transcript.

Context: The court has loosened trademark law recently — for example, it sided with a band that was denied a trademark for its name — but the rules prohibiting the use of living people's names seems likely to remain intact.

  • "The question is, is this an infringement on speech? And the answer is no," liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, noting that Elster is still free to sell the t-shirts even if he can't trademark the phrase.

What's next: A ruling is expected by summer.

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