The Slants Frontman Fights Government To Register His Band's Name : Code Switch Simon Tam, the founder and bassist of The Slants, has spent six years trying to register his group's name. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says the name disparages Asians.

The Slants Frontman Fights Government To Register His Band's Name

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What you're about to hear may sound like your average '80s-inspired rock band, but it's not.


THE SLANTS: (Singing) Do you want to take my breath and cut it off? Take it all from me.

SIEGEL: This is a Portland, Ore., band called The Slants. That name might raise an eyebrow when you find out that the group's members are Asian-Americans. They say it's a deliberate effort to make a point about stereotypes. But, as we hear from Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team, the name has put the band at odds with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


THE SLANTS: (Singing) We sing for the Japanese and the Chinese and all the dirty knees.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: Let me repeat that for you. (Reading) We sing for the Japanese and the Chinese and all the dirty knees.

This is from The Slants' song, "Sakura, Sakura." It's a reference to a playground taunt many Asians-Americans have heard, like The Slants' founder and bassist.

SIMON TAM: First name is Simon, last name Tam.

CHOW: About eight years ago, Simon Tam had an idea for an Asian-American band. He's Taiwanese and Chinese-American, and he's always cared about issues related to his identity. One day, Tam was brainstorming different names with a friend.

TAM: And I said, oh, you know, what's something - what stereotype - what do you think all Asians have in common? And they said, oh, it's the slanted eyes.

CHOW: Tam thought he could reclaim the word.

TAM: We can talk about it being our slant on life.

CHOW: So after he decided on the name, he got his band together. They played songs across the country at an anime convention, at colleges. And six years ago, as they started picking up steam, Tam wanted to register the band's name with the Patent and Trademark Office to help The Slants with getting a record deal and generally protect the group's brand. But there was a wrench in his plans.

REBECCA TUSHNET: The Patent and Trademark Office has said we don't care why you're trying to register this. We're just going to apply the ban on disparaging marks.

CHOW: That's Rebecca Tushnet. She's a professor at Georgetown Law, and she explained why the trademark office didn't let the name fly. She says a very specific bit of trademark law is important - the Lanham Act, section 2(a). It prohibits registration of marks the agency considers scandalous or immoral.

Now, I reached out to the office, but they said they won't comment on ongoing cases. But the trademark office tests a few things - the mark's meaning, if it refers to a specific group and if it's disparaging to a substantial part of it. So despite Tam's intentions, The Slants failed that test.

TUSHNET: It may well be that your intent is to reclaim these terms, but if people don't understand that, you're stuck with them being disparaging.

CHOW: Jennifer Lee disagrees. She's a professor of sociology at UC, Irvine and the co-author of "The Diversity Paradox: Immigration And The Color Line In Twenty-First Century America."

JENNIFER LEE: Who is seeking to reclaim the name is very important. And in this case, it's a group of Asian-American who are seeking to empower themselves and also other Asian-Americans.

CHOW: That's an argument Tam will get another chance to test. Although the Patent and Trademark Office denied his initial application, and it was denied again in an appeal, last month, something pretty unusual happened. A group of judges vacated the original opinion and agreed to give Tam another shot at an appeal. And this time, they'll be weighing whether the law itself violates free speech. Still, Tam would rather be on stage than in court.

TAM: I can barely remember a time when we were known for the band that was fighting stereotypes and not the band that was fighting a court case.

CHOW: Kat Chow, NPR News.

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