GENERIC AND ICONIC RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS

We have reported cases in which the church split led to a tug of war over a symbol that one faction tried to register and prevent other factions from using.  Symbols, both generic and iconic, often were created long ago and their exact origins will never be known sufficiently to support defendable registration as a trademark.  Symbols more recently created can become iconic, especially when they were not registered as trademarks or defended as such during the early years or decades of their existence.  Symbols that become iconic or generic representations of a religious group may lose defendable registration as a trademark.

In Holy Spirit Association v World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, Inc., Memorandum (MD Penn. 2022), the federal trial court was faced with competing claims for a trademarked symbol.  The church split arose at the denominational level between competing factions each claiming to be the legitimate heir of the deceased founder.  The symbol in question may have been created by the founder in 1965 but one faction did not attempt to trademark it until 2009.  The faction claiming the symbol was registered and defendable demanded that one of the other factions cease using the symbol.  The faction using the symbol in alleged violation of the registration claimed the symbol was iconic and represented the underlying theological premise of everyone involved and not a particular faction.  The federal court determined it could not determine whether the symbol was iconic without inquiring into the underlying theological premise the symbol was allegedly supposed to represent.  The federal trial court held such an inquiry would violate the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and could not be decided by Neutral Principles of Law.  Another religious inquiry, the court determined, would require determination of which faction was or represented the rightful heir of the founder and allegedly entitled to control the registered symbol.

The race to register the symbol as a trademark did determine a winner.  Indeed, the half a century of use of the symbol by the founder of the denomination prior to registration argued that the symbol was or had become iconic long before the actual registration.  The lesson is that trademarking registration should accompany the birth of the symbol or be commenced as soon thereafter as possible.  Founders rarely anticipate their own passing and rarely plan for succession.  Likewise, they rarely plan for competing factions among those claiming to be rightful heirs.

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