An obscure portion of trademark law could be changed thanks to a band’s refusal to give up its identity.
By Amber Healy
Censorship’s one thing. Being told by a government agency your band name is insulting and disparaging to a community you belong to, despite all evidence to the contrary, is something else entirely.
For the past five years, Simon Tam, founder of the Portland, Oregon-based band The Slants, has been splitting his time between making music and defending the band’s name. Believed to be the world’s first all Asian-American dance rock band, Tam decided before the current line-up was in place that he wanted to call his band The Slants after asking a friend about common misconceptions and stereotypes of Asian Americans. The caricature of people with slanted eyes was the friend’s first reaction.
“Number One, it isn’t true,” Tam tells Geeks and Beats in a recent interview. “Number two, it’s a word that has so many different meanings. We can talk about our own slant on life as people of color, we can kind of address this stereotype and also for those New Wave music-types, it almost sounds like an ‘80s band,” a band Debbie Harry might’ve fronted if not for Blondie, he laughs.
The band—which includes Tyler Chen on drums, Thai Dao on guitar and keyboards, William Moore on lead guitar, Kenshin Shima on vocals and Tam, who also goes by Simon Young, on bass—set about writing albums and performing stages as varied as a wedding in Portland, dive bars around the US and a military installation in the middle of Kosovo as part of a USO Tour. A lawyer friend suggested that Tam trademark the name, a common practice for bands as a way to prevent other groups from using the same moniker (which is why the British band Bush was known in Canada as Bush X for many years in the mid to late ‘90s, or the Charlatans compared with the Charlatans UK in roughly the same era).
It was supposed to be a simple filing—fill out some forms and the trademark would be secured in a few months. Five and a half years later, Tam’s entangled in a legal standoff with the US Patent and Trademark Office, which has denied the trademark filing because it believes the name is offensive, demeaning or disparaging to the Asian American community.
On behalf of The Slants, amicus briefs have been filed by, among others, The Cato Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups representing the Asian-American community have repeatedly shown support for the name, including survivors of internment camps during WWII. The Patent and Trademark Office, conversely, has relied on sites like Urban Dictionary and websites operated by white supremacists groups to support its claim that the name is offensive.
That’s what bothers Tam the most. That, and his inability to speak on his own behalf when the case returns to court in October.
“It’s not as exciting as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” he says, referencing the Jimmy Stewart movie. “I won’t be allowed to talk, only the lawyers will be allowed to. I can pass notes and I can watch quietly and glare at people, but that’s about it. There’s not a lot of love for me toward the trademark office. The deeply ironic thing about all of this is that we’re going to have my white attorneys arguing with the white attorneys at the trademark office before all white judges about what’s offensive to Asian people and the only Asian in the room will not be allowed to talk. But that’s government for you.”
Here’s an interview with The Slants’ Simon Tam.