Rock bands often find themselves falling foul of the law for a variety of reasons, but it is extremely rare for one to find itself at the heart of a case taken up by the US Supreme Court, which resumes work after its holidays on Monday.
At issue is the desire of Oregon-based Asian-American band The Slants to trademark their name. The band, who call themselves the “world’s first all-Asian American dance rock band”, was founded in Portland in 2006 by Simon Tam. They tried to trademark their name in 2011, but were refused, and their legal suit of the trademark office has now reached the highest court in the land.
The Slants have been denied because the authorities insist their name is a long-established racial insult, while the band insists it wants to “reappropriate” the label, much in the same way as some African-American artists have attempted to defang the “nigger” slur by using it themselves.
Lawyers for Tam said the trademark office had been inconsistent in how it has applied the law: “One of the most well-known and influential musical groups of the 1980s and 1990s was N.W.A., which fans knew stood for ‘Niggaz Wit Attitudes.’ While [such terms] certainly may be used in a disparaging way, the members of N.W.A. did not use the word that way, and the group’s millions of fans did not interpret the name as disparaging,” they said.
The Slants insist they are simply defending their intellectual property, but the case could also have a knock-on effect in another, high-profile ongoing case featuring the Washington Redskins American football team.
Their name has been a bitter bone of contention for Native Americans for years. This led to the team’s six trademarks being cancelled by the Patent Office in 2014. The year after, President Barack Obama said it was time the team representing the nation’s capital changed its name as America had to “break stereotypes”.
The last time the “slant” insult hit the headlines was in fact in Great Britain, when its derivative “slope” was used by controversial presenter Jeremy Clarkson in a Top Gear special in Myanmar, supposedly to remark on the camber on a bridge he and his colleagues wanted to cross.