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Disparagement Defined

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The legal definition of disparagement is very similar to the layperson's definition. The dictionary defines disparagement as speaking of someone in a disrespectful manner or belittling someone. The legal definition of disparagement is similar, and prohibits the disparagement of a person, group or product.

Disparagement Defined in Trademark Law

Under disparagement law dealing with trademarks, if a patent or trademark belittles or disparages a person or group, the party or parties who are demeaned by the trademark may petition to have the patent or trademark cancelled.

A famous case called Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo was based on the legal doctrine of disparagement. In that case, seven Native Americans petitioned the trademark office to cancel the trademark held by The Washington Redskins football team, alleging that the trademarked name was disrespectful to Native Americans. The group first began their quest to have the name declared invalid in 1992. The trademark office complied in 1999 but the team challenged the ruling in court, and ultimately prevailed in 2009 on a technicality that too much time had passed for a challenge. Another group of Native Americans then filed a new trademark challenge. 

This law is designed to protect minorities and other special interest groups from suffering the mental anguish associated with being belittled. Copyrights, patents and trademarks protect brands and intellectual information. This is an important protection; however, the right of parties and groups to be free from discrimination may outweigh it.

Disparagement Defined In Product Law

Courts also have laws against disparaging products. For example, a person or company is forbidden from publishing false disparaging statements about a product or the contents of a product. This is very similar to defamation laws, but is considered a subset of law called product disparagement in some jurisdictions.

Melaleuca, Inc. v. Hulda R. Clark was a 1998 case addressing product disparagement. Dr. Hulda Clark wrote two books that contained statements that Melaleuca's cleaning and nutrition products contained certain carcinogens. The court held in favor of Clark, saying that, as in defamation law, the company had to do more than prove the false statements were made. The company also had to prove that the writer knew her statements were false and had actual malice. Actual malice means that harm was intended or that the author was excessively reckless as to the truth of the statements made about the product. This is very similar to the standard applied in cases where a public figure or celebrity sues for defamation of character.

Additional protections are provided when disparagement of products is an issue because the U.S. places a high premium on freedom of speech. This constitutionally protected right ensures that critics can make comments about products without fear of retaliation in the form of a lawsuit.

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