Ok, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A Republican walks into a bar with a duck under his arm. He turns to the bartender and . . . Oops. I forgot. The GOP is a few funny bones short of a sense of humor these days. As Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy writes on the Consumer Law & Policy Blog, the Republican National Committee is in a huff over some T-shirts and bumper stickers that bear their Elephant logo or the acronym “GOP.” It seems the RNC has trademarked both logo and name and they’re threatening to sue the folks over at CafePress.com for allowing its users to sell shirts both supporting and making fun of Republicans.
This case may or may not be headed to court. If it does, it will pit trademark law against the First Amendment. Of course, Public Citizen, which has stepped in to represent CafePress, is of the opinion that the use of the trademarks is protected political speech. Here’s Levy’s take:
If the case does go forward, it will raise interesting questions about how well traditional concepts of trademark law apply to purely political speech about the functioning of one of the major national political parties. There is, to be sure, no question that non-profits can obtain and enforce trademarks, as in the dispute between the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Trademarks have at least some role to play with respect to fundraising even by smaller political parties, as in the United We Stand case. But when a popular acronym or symbol is used to express adherence or opposition to a major political party, different considerations are at play, and the courts will need to decide whether, for example, such traditional concepts as “likelihood of confusion” or “likelihood of dilution” can properly be deployed to limit pure political speech about the biggest players on our political landscape.
Either way, I’m guessing that the attention will only help the sale of some of the shirts on CafePress. Below are samples of the shirt and bumper sticker designs for sale. (I’m presenting them for illustrative purposes, since we’re non-partisan here at Public Citizen.)