Four years ago, my band’s attorney suggested that we get a trademark on our band’s name. It’s pretty standard for bands to do – trademarks ensure that others don’t use the name, causing confusion in the marketplace. The job of the Trademark Office is to regulate the intellectual properties of businesses and artists. I never imagined that this relatively simple process would become a battle lasting four years and counting.
I started an all-Asian American dance rock band to empower people of color, celebrate our respective heritages, and of course, have an outlet for our artistic expression. Our band name is “The Slants,” a reference to our perspective, or “slant,” on APA life. Despite it being an otherwise neutral word, the Trademark Office rejected our case, believing it inappropriate for Asians to use the term in any matter: positive, negative, or otherwise.
In other words, I was denied a right because of my race. They said our band was “too Asian” because not of our all-Asian American lineup, but because also we collaborate with other Asian artists and organizations. If I wasn’t Chinese-American, this would not be a problem. In the entire history of the Trademark Office, no other application was accused of racial connotations for the term “slant” (there’s been almost 800). But this Asian American screwed things up by trying to trademark a term that could only be used by non-Asians.
Some asked me what the big deal was, that with all of the other struggles in the world, why we’d choose to fight such a long, expensive battle. After all, we can still technically use the name, even if we don’t have a trademark.
I understand that there are bigger issues that many people deal with, but the heart of the matter is that this is another example of systemic racism driven by white privilege. When one has to live everyday in a biased society, each obstacle that we can roll back is a victory. It might be a small thing, but it’s my small thing – and the fact of the matter is that this law has been unfairly targeting minorities since the 1940’s, when it was conceived.
It isn’t just about my band’s name, it’s about granting equal consideration to anyone who comes before the law. The KKK, Uncle Kracker, and even “Slantshack” have their trademarks but people of color can’t use terms that might possibly venture into the territory of re-appropriation, irony, or self-reference.
Yes, we can still use our band name without a trademark but that doesn’t address the heart of the matter: people should not be denied rights because of their race, just as people shouldn’t be denied rights because of their sexual orientation. It’s insulting when people tell my sister she can still have a relationship even though they deny the right for her to marry her partner, and it’s insulting when they tell me I can’t trademark my band’s name because of my race.
Why should some be entitled to less rights than others because of who they are? Why does the Trademark Office have to see me as an “Asian” and not just treat me as an “American”? Because my band does social justice work and fights for APA rights?
Not only did the Trademark Office present abysmal evidence (such as relying on urbandictionary.com), but they even deliberately distorted evidence in their favor. For example, they refer to an incident where an invitation for our band to perform at an Asian youth conference was rescinded, claiming it was due to outrage over the band’s name. However, a member of the organization’s board provided legal testimony that it wasn’t the case: we were cancelled due to logistics and concerns from a Christian school over the secular nature of our lyrics. In fact, they still referred to the band in the printed program and website, and I assisted with panel moderation. We sent copies of the program along with the testimony. Yet, the Trademark Office’s attorney continued to argue otherwise, ignoring that-and over 2,000 pages of evidence submitted.
The sad thing is that we could have secured the trademark if we had a white applicant file instead. However, we didn’t want to win by using trickery. We wanted to win on principle.
We’re fighting for more than a band name, we’re fighting for the right of self-determination for all minorities. If our case wins, we can help change this absurd law that has been affecting minorities for over 70 years now. It’s winning the right for minorities to have equal protection in the marketplace…but most of all, equal recognition in commercial law. I know a trademark isn’t as sexy as other massive social justice campaigns, but as Helen Keller once stated, “The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves by its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.”