‘RACIAL SLUR’: Government blocks Asian-American band from trademarking ‘The Slants’

Vince Coglianese Editorial Director
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A six-member, Portland, Ore. band composed entirely of Asian-Americans has been fighting the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for over four years in an effort to trademark the band’s name — “The Slants.”

When the band first applied for the trademark in 2009, the PTO refused on the grounds that the name was offensive to Asians, citing two crowd-sourced reference sites — Wikipedia and the ever-colorful Urban Dictionary — in the denial.

Urban Dictionary, an online compendium of user-submitted definitions, has multiple definitions for “slants.” According to one, the term is a “derogatory term used to refer to those of Asian descent. More accurately, it tends to refer to anybody with slanted eyes.” Another identifies “slants” as “Pants worn by a slut, or ‘slutty pants’ or ‘slut pants’ which form the merged word ‘slants’. Normally worn much lower than normal pants because the wearer is ‘always ready.'”

NPR reports that The Slants threw every argument they could think of at the PTO in their first application in 2009:

  • They’re “reclaiming the term.” (That argument worked for “Dykes on Bikes” in 2005.)
  • It’s “a reference to musical chords.”
  • They’ve surveyed Asian-Americans across the country about the offensiveness of the phrase.
  • They had a Duke University linguist analyze the word.

The PTO turned them down by citing the “Lanham Act,” which forbids “scandalous” or “immoral” trademarks.

So The Slants changed their strategy and applied again in 2011, removing all references to race.

“On the second attempt we decided to make it race neutral,” Simon Tam, the group’s band manager and bassist, told The Daily Caller. “Nothing [was in the application] that would indicate we were Asian whatsoever.”

“We wanted to apply for the name on its own merit and see what the reaction would be,” Tam said.

But Tam said the PTO didn’t even try to consider the application independently from the previous one.

“The same examining attorney just copied and pasted the old evidence” in the denial, Tam explained. “When we asked him why he applied the use of a racial slur on our application, [he replied,] ‘Because the applicant is Asian-American. Because of the applicant’s race, people automatically think of the racial slur.'”

“[W]e are faced with a term that necessarily identifies people, i.e., the live performers,” the PTO wrote in the denial. “Thus, those who attend the live performances will necessarily understand THE SLANTS to refer to the persons who comprise the musical band.”

The group was livid. “You shouldn’t be allowed to deny a right based on somebody’s race,” Tam told TheDC.

The group refers to their music as “Chinatown Dance Rock”, and their albums include “Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts,” “Slants! Slants! Revolution,” “Pageantry,” and “The Yellow Album.”

“They describe themselves as one of the first Asian-American rock bands,” NPR’s Kat Chow wrote. “Their music caters to an Asian-American crowd, they’ve spoken at various Asian-American events, and they’re proud of all of it.”

Now the group is taking their case to federal court.

The Slants are hoping that a judge will agree with the band’s newest argument — that it’s their First Amendment right to use any name they want — and force the PTO to approve the trademark.

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Vince Coglianese