When word got out recently that a trademark application for the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Dykes on Bikes was rejected, EFF did some further research into the grounds for rejection.
It turns out that despite the more than 400 pages of scholarship submitted in support of the application, the US Patent and Trademark Office relied on two dictionary definitions as proof that the word was "offensive." The first definition originated from an online version of the 1913 Webster's dictionary.
Beyond its age and out-of-date nature, the dictionary's definition also had the tag "PJC" on it. We were intrigued, so we decided to investigate further.
It turns out that "PJC" stood for Patrick J. Cassidy of Micra, Inc., the company that created the online version. Terms in the dictionary bearing his "tag" indicate that they were not, in fact, part of the original dictionary he had transcribed online but rather something that he himself had arbitrarily added.
So in essence, the PTO relied on a definition that was created at random by someone not at all associated with Webster's dictionary.
The second definition the PTO relied on came from an online dictionary of Spanish slang that listed "dyke" as a "vulgar word." Once again there was no accountability for the definition -- it was just one person's site giving what they consider vulgar words in Spanish.
The PTO gave no reason or justification for why these two websites were somehow more influential or credible than the over 400 pages submitted by DOB.
Interestingly, the PTO approved trademarks for "Hustler's Young Sluts," "Psychic Phone Whores," and "Psychobitch." All three terms -- "slut," "whore," and "bitch" -- are listed as vulgar in that Spanish slang dictionary the PTO chose to rely on in this case.
Here at the EFF we believe in equal opportunity for all in the world of intellectual property. It's not the proper role of a government office to pick and choose arbitrarily between rights granted to certain groups based on politics and culture, especially when it means giving the government the power to define what is "vulgar" or "offensive."