U.S. federal trademark laws are enacted under the “Commerce Clause” of the Constitution. This is different from patent and copyright laws, which are expressly constitutionally authorized. Trademark law doesn’t have any special constitutional authorization. And the Tenth Amendment says that powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the States (or to the people). So, in order to be constitutional, federal trademark law has to be tied to certain types of commerce that the federal government has authority to regulate under the Commerce Clause. Lawyers learn about the Commerce Clause in law school. But it isn’t something that comes up in typical history courses in schools.
In brief, the U.S. federal government didn’t do a whole lot before the Civil War. It focused mostly on foreign policy. But during the post-Civil War “reconstruction” period it started to take on new and expanded roles that hadn’t been meaningfully considered before. Reconstruction provoked deep political debates that were not fully settled by the war. President Lincoln’s assassination added to this post-war tumult. Some constitutional amendments were passed but various proposals failed. Supporters of “lost cause of the confederacy” mythology advocated for “states rights” to try to block federal initiatives and undo advancements of the Civil War.
As time went on, court rulings limited federal powers—and even reconstruction era constitutional amendments—culminating in the so-called Lochner Era. Nearly any regulation of business was struck down. But then the Great Depression and the New Deal Era changed political alignments and an expansive view of the Commerce Clause took hold—for a time at least. Courts started to uphold new and unprecedented federal government laws and initiatives.
The federal trademark laws still in effect today were originally set forth in the Lanham Act. Congress passed the Lanham Act in 1946, during the New Deal Era. Aside from trademark provisions, it also addressed things like public funding of child day care (if only for a short period of time). But the Lanham Act still rests on the Commerce Clause, meaning it can only extend to commerce that may lawfully be regulated by Congress. Such constitutional limits to trademarks are not exactly by design. But in the absence of a constitutional amendment, any federal trademark laws must be limited to what the Commerce Clause permits.
Courts have not sustained any constitutional challenges to federal trademark authority under the Lanham Act as a whole, to date, having struck down only isolated aspects. Though courts have offered shifting justifications for aspects of trademark law. And interpretations of the law have altered and expanded its scope in ways that generally reflect post-New Deal political alignments. The Lanham Act has also been amended in various ways by Congress since its original enactment.
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