Document Type


Publication Date

January 2009


Trademark law contains important limits that place a range of third party conduct beyond the control of the trademark owner. However, I suggest that trademark law would be better served if several of its limits were explicitly conceptualized as defenses to an action for infringement, that is, as rules permitting unauthorized uses of marks even where such uses implicate the affirmative concerns of trademark law and thus support a prima facie cause of action by the trademark owner. To explore why this distinction between limits and defenses matters, I discuss the different nature of the proscription imposed by copyright and trademark law. And I draw lessons both from case law deriving limits from interpretation of the proscription of trademark law as well as from the development of statutory defenses to dilution. Conceiving of limits as defenses would help ensure that the (often unstated) values underlying socially desirable third party uses are not too readily disregarded if they happen to conflict with confusion-avoidance concerns that are historically powerful drivers of trademark protection. Such an approach would also ameliorate the uncertainties caused by the acceptance of extended (and increasingly amorphous) notions of actionable harm in trademark law. And it would facilitate a more transparent debate about the different forms that limits on trademark rights might take. Some defenses will operate as mechanisms by which to balance competing policy concerns on a case-by-case basis, while others (reflecting more fundamental normative commitments, or driven by more proceduralist concerns) might allow certain values categorically to trump the basic policy concerns supporting liability for trademark infringement. Full development of these defenses will involve courts adopting a conscious understanding of the different jurisprudential nature of defenses and will be made easier by acceptance of the Lanham Act as a delegating statute.

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