A Slanted view (my fight with the USPTO for API rights)
This is reposted from my original article at yomyomf.com:
I play bass in what’s often known as the first and only all-Asian American dance rock band in the world. We perform at many of the largest Asian cultural festivals in North America. We’ve been featured in and on over 1,500 radio stations, websites, magazines, and tv shows talking about the Asian American experience. As I mention in my bio above, my band members and I often facilitate workshops on cultural diversity, racism, and stereotypes about Asian and Asian American culture. In fact, when you look up information on the band, it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t associate us with Asian American culture, which is why when the U.S Trademark and Patent Office said that our band was disparaging to persons of Asian descent, I was rather shocked.
Let me elaborate.
The name that I and my cohort of pan-Asian Americans chose for the band is The Slants. We deliberately chose this outdated, generational term to inject pride into Asian American culture. Because of the broad support that we’ve had from APA’s – not only from media and blogs, but lifelong activists who are aware of the sensitivities of the community at large, we never expected the USPTO to have an issue when we filed for a trademark on the band’s name.
The Trademark Office doesn’t allow terms that are deemed to be disparaging to be approved. In order for them to reject an application for a trademark on these grounds, they have to show that a substantial composite of the referenced group to be offended by the word.
When we responded to the Trademark Office with evidence of support from the community, we included dozens of examples of Asian Pacific American media supporting our band. Well known lifelong APA activists wrote letters of support for our use of the name. We also showed other examples of Asian Americans using the term “Slant” in a positive manner, such as major API Film Festival “Slant”and Chicago-based TV show “The Slant.”
So what kind of evidence did they bring to demonstrate the collected outrage of APA’s who are offended by our name?
First, they cited UrbanDictionary.com. Then, they found an anonymous post on a message board from someone who said they didn’t like our name. After that, they put in photographs of Miley Cyrus making a slant-eye gesture. They sent this to us along with a rejection letter that said the vast support we demonstrated from the APA community was “laudable” but not influential.
This is what angers me the most: the US Trademark Office decided that anonymous wiki sources mattered more than the voice of Asian Americans. Why does a government agency that has no connection with APA’s have the right to dictate what is appropriate for our community? Why don’t we have the right to decide for ourselves?
Our plight reminds me of another case. You might know of the NFL team, The Redskins. The litigation over their name has been going on since 1992 except in that case, the Trademark Office continues to defend their name despite formal objections, legal challenges, and law suits from Native Americans who find the term “Redskins” to be an offensive racial slur. Again, a government agency that has no connection with the referenced community is making decisions as to what is appropriate or offensive for them. In our case, they deny our trademark in the absence of any valid complaints from Asian Americans. With Native Americans, they continue to defend “Redskins” even in the face of formal objections.
The role of government shouldn’t include deciding what a group can define themselves as. That right should belong to the community itself. While I would love to win the trademark to protect my band’s name – and frankly, to end the process because it’s been a long and expensive one – this case is bigger than The Slants. This will help determine what other minority groups are going to do in the future.
So let me wrap up by saying to the Asian American community: Thank you for your support over the years. Our love for spreading API culture drives us to continue what we do. If you would be so kind to donate a few minutes of your time and join us in this fight, please contact me: email@example.com (or tumblr @aslantedview)
And To the Trademark Office: Thank you for being offended on my behalf. You might not know this, but API’s have been a part of U.S history since 1750, when Filipinos began settling here. We have helped built this country, from the railroads to shaping civil rights laws for all citizens. And believe it or not, we’re grown up enough now to decide what’s right for ourselves. The broad, unified support of the Asian American community should be enough to trump that of Urban Dictionary.com. Our voice matters, you should listen.
But then again, my view is a little “slanted”.