Inspired by a recent Supreme Court ruling, two entrepreneurs offended by the n-word filed to trademark the epithet to keep it out of the hands of racists.
The court ruled in June that disparaging words can receive trademark protection. It said rejecting disparaging trademarks violates the First Amendment, clearing the way for an Asian American rock group called the Slants to trademark its name — and for the Washington Redskins’s maligned moniker to stay protected as well.
Steve Maynard, an Alexandria attorney, and Curtis Bordenave of Columbus, Miss., filed to trademark a variation of the n-word the same day the court decision came down.
Bordenave sought use of the term in “retail store services featuring clothing, books, music and general merchandise,” among other uses, according to one of his trademark applications.
His goal: To prevent racist groups from making money from the word.
“If an individual organization tries to use it to gain finances for their organization . . . that is not something we think is right, we’re going to protect our mark,” he said.
Bordenave, 47, said he was inspired to “censor” the n-word because of his experiences as a black man living in the South, particularly when a police officer in New Orleans used the slur during a traffic stop nearly two decades ago.
“I was so humiliated, embarrassed,” he said. “For him to talk to me in that way in front of my children was a real big problem.”
Maynard, who also filed to trademark the Nazi swastika, said he wanted to quash hate by getting the rights to it.
“We hope to flood the market with T-shirts and clothing and end up opening up a discussion,” said Maynard, who described himself as “having a light skin tone,” but was reluctant to disclose his skin color because of threats he said he has received related to his trademark application.
Gene Quinn, founder of the intellectual property blog IP Watchdog, said trademarking epithets to limit their use was a “laudable purpose,” but difficult to achieve.
To be maintained, trademarks must be used in interstate commerce, he said, and are awarded in different classes, such as clothing, food or video games. Anyone trying to erase these words from the marketplace would simultaneously need to put them into the marketplace.
“I doubt they’re going to want to use the n-word in commerce themselves,” he said. “If they’re going down this path, they’re going to be in real trouble.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said the office does not comment on trademark applications. Applications for trademarks flagged under a “scandalousness provision” can still be denied, the spokesman said.
Bordenave said he has filed many trademarks for phrases and logos that might prove profitable — radio frequencies, for example, and the phrase “New Orleans Tricentennial.” (The city will celebrate its 300th birthday next year.)
His idea: Build a brand around the n-word by including it discreetly — in T-shirt collar tags or fine print on water bottles, for example — on products emblazoned with larger, positive messages like “UNITY.” He said consumers would learn that, by buying such products, they were keeping the epithet out of more visible circulation.
“We can change the meaning of it, you know, in any way we choose,” Bordenave said.
Maynard — of Snowflake Enterprises, named for a common insult of “someone with thin skin,” he said — planned to co-opt the swastika by including it on baby products. Such “social satire,” he said, could change its meaning and restrict its usage among hate groups.
“One of the hopes is that people look at the swastika flag in 10 years and think: baby wipes,” he said.
Before the Supreme Court decision in the Slants case, there was precedent for a hateful word without trademark protection falling into the wrong hands.
Heeb, which calls itself a “Jewish culture magazine,” was founded in 2001. Though the satirical publication was able to secure a trademark, its founders were denied one for Heeb-branded clothing because the term was deemed “scandalous and immoral” by the trademark office, according to Heeb co-founder Joshua Neuman.
Then, the story took a turn: About 10 years ago, a neo-Nazi group obtained some Heeb readers’ emails and invited them to a faux “Heeb” event not associated with the magazine. But, without a trademark on the term, the magazine could not do anything about it.
“We should have been allowed to use the word ‘heeb’ because we would have used it better,” Neuman said.
Simon Tam, the bassist of the Slants, said the ability to trademark words some consider hateful is important, even if racists can trademark them. Trademark applications, after all, are public information.
“It’s a lot better to deal with a known enemy . . . than to have someone leave anonymous notes at my door,” he said.
At the trademark office, the battle for ownership of the n-word is not new. More than a decade ago, comedian Damon Wayans became perhaps the most famous person to fail to trademark the slur, in his case, for a clothing line and retail store.
But since the Slants decision, at least three other people besides Bordenave and Maynard have filed for phrases that include the n-word.
Marlon Andrews, using a D.C. address, filed to trademark a variation of the word the day the Slants decision came down. Another man, 25-year-old Ian Scott of New York, filed to trademark a phrase containing the word last week, but said he was unaware of the decision in the Slants case.
Scott, who said he graduated from Virginia State University and works in corporate retail, said the phrase was a reminder that members of minority groups still face racism when they succeed.
“Racism still exists even though we came a long, long way,” he said. “That’s all it is. I’m not trying to offend nobody.”
Mike Lin, an Asian American entrepreneur from California who’s called himself the “Banksy of trademarks,” filed his application because he thought he would “just go for one of the most incendiary words,” he said.
Bordenave said he likes his chances of getting the trademark. He questioned whether anyone who is not African American could have a legitimate claim to the word.
“I don’t think it’s affected him like it’s affected me,” Bordenave said of Maynard. “I don’t think he’s been called this word.”