By George Kennedy
On May 19, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case of Radiance Foundation v. NAACP. The court held that an online article describing the NAACP as the “National Association for the Abortion of Colored People” did not infringe upon or dilute trademarks held by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In so holding, the Fourth Circuit vacated the decision of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Publication of the Article
In January 2013 the Radiance Foundation published an article entitled “NAACP: National Association for the Abortion of Colored People.” Appearing on the Radiance Foundation’s website, and several others, the article harshly criticized the NAACP’s position on abortion. The organizations that featured the article were non-profit, anti-abortion organizations which allowed site users to make donations.
Upon learning of the article’s publication, the NAACP sent Radiance a cease-and-desist letter on January 28, 2013. Radiance then brought a declaratory action seeking that the court find that Radiance had not infringed upon or diluted any of NAACP’s trademarks and that Radiance’s use of the marks was protected under the First Amendment.
The District Court Found for the NAACP
In a bench trial, the district court found for the NAACP and denied declaratory relief to Radiance. It held that Radiance had infringed upon the NAACP’s trademarks because it had used the marks in connection with goods and services and that the description of the NAACP as the “National Association for the Abortion of Colored People” was likely to create confusion among consumers. Furthermore, the district court held that the use of NAACP’s trademark created a likelihood of dilution of the trademarks owned by the NAACP by associating the NAACP and its marks with a pro-abortion position. Lastly, the district court held that Radiance’s use of the NAACP’s trademarks did not fall under any of the allowed exceptions of trademark dilution as set forth in the Lanham Act.
As a result, the district court issued a permanent injunction to Radiance, barring the organization from using the words “‘National Association for the Abortion of Colored People’ in a way that creates a likelihood of confusion or dilution.
The Fourth Circuit Vacated the Decision
In vacating the district court’s decision, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in granting injunctive relief to the NAACP for two reasons. First, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in finding that the NAACP had an actionable trademark infringement claim. Second, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in finding that Radiance diluted the NAACP’s trademarks.
Radiance’s Article Did not Infringe Upon NAACP’s Trademarks
Trademark infringement is governed by the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1114(1) and 1125(a). As the Fourth Circuit explained, these statutes exist to protect consumers from being confused by improperly used trademarks. However, trademark protection is limited by the Constitutional right to free speech, and as the Fourth Circuit noted, trademark laws may not “impinge the rights of critics and commentators.” For this reason, an actionable claim for trademark infringement requires more than just showing that a party other than the trademark holder used the trademark. Additionally, the trademark infringer must be shown to have used the trademark “in connection with” goods or services in a manner that is “likely to cause confusion.”
The Fourth Circuit held that Radiance did not use the NAACP’s trademarks “in connection” with goods or services, nor did they use the trademarks in a manner “likely to cause confusion.” While Radiance’s article did appear on websites which allowed users to make monetary donations, the Fourth Circuit held that there was not a clear enough connection with transactional activity for Radiance’s use of the NAACP’s trademarks to be considered “in connection” with goods or services. The Fourth Circuit reasoned it was not enough that the article merely appeared on a website in which monetary donations could be made. Instead, there needed to be a clear connection between the article itself and transactional activity for the “in connection” with goods and services requirement to be met.
Similarly, the Fourth Circuit also held that Radiance’s use of the NAACP’s trademarks was not likely to cause confusion. In its reasoning, the Fourth Circuit focused on the idea that trademark laws are not intended to protect the trademark holder from those who misunderstand its political views, and that it was unlikely that any readers of the article would have been confused about an affiliation between Radiance Foundation and the NAACP. As the Fourth Circuit argued, the article authored by Radiance was a scathing critique of the NAACP; it would not follow that the NAACP would author such an article.
Radiance’s Article Did Not Dilute the NAACP’s Trademarks
Lastly, the Fourth Circuit held that NAACP did not have an actionable dilution claim against Radiance. The law of dilution, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)(3), protects the integrity of the trademark by protecting the trademark’s reputation. While the Fourth Circuit conceded that the NAACP had established a prima facie case for dilution against Radiance, the Fourth Circuit held that Radiance’s use of the NAACP’s trademark was permissible under the “fair use” exception and the “non-commercial use” exception. The fair use exception allows a trademark to be used by someone other than the trademark holder to comment or criticize the trademark holder or its services. The Fourth Circuit held that Radiance used the trademark “NAACP” in conjunction with the “National Association for the Abortion of Colored People” as a way to criticize the NAACP and the policies for which it stands. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit held that the non-commercial use exception was satisfied because Radiance’s purpose in writing the article was not commercial gain, but to strongly criticize the policies and political positions of the NAACP. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held that there existed no basis for either a trademark infringement claim or trademark dilution claim against Radiance. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court erred in granting injunctive relief to NAACP on the basis of trademark infringement and trademark dilution.
The Fourth Circuit Vacated and Remanded for Further Proceedings