Who owns the Tea Party? The intersection of politics and intellectual property law

IP laws have regularly clashed with political campaign ambitions. In the 2008 campaign cycle, for example, the Mike Huckabee for President campaign ceased using Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, and Jackson Browne sued John McCain and the Ohio Republican Party for the unauthorized use of “Running on Empty” in an internet commercial. Each of these legal contests involved copyright, which is not limited to music, as the iconic Obama Hope poster led to a legal showdown between the artist and the Associated Press. Going forward, however, trademark, domain names, and related IP issues will likely become more important and contentious as the Tea Party movement depends less on rallies and relies more on the internet and social media to define its messages, expand outreach, and raise money.

History is repeating itself with a variety of groups laying claim to the Tea Party name. Just as rival factions in 1992 vied to control the UNITED WE STAND AMERICA mark associated with the Ross Perot campaign, about 20 groups have filed trademark applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since 2009 seeking to register marks that include the phrase Tea Party. Although many of these applications are for consumer goods like clothing, the filings illustrate the overwhelming interest in the movement and efforts to capitalize on the meaning of the Tea Party mark.

Trademarks serve to protect consumers from confusion as to the source of various goods but certain state political parties, such as “Tea Party” in Florida and “Tea Party of Nevada” may instead be contributing to the confusion. In Nevada, Scott Ashjian, a minor candidate for Senate, is on the ballot next to the Tea Party label. Sharon Angle, meanwhile, a national Tea Party movement favorite, is listed as a Republican. Thus, voters could focus on party affiliation rather than the candidate’s name. Even more fundamental is Florida, where an activist’s early registration of “Tea Party” as a Florida political party has now been challenged in federal court by a coalition of other Tea Party groups questioning whether one party should have the exclusive right to the Tea Party name.

Closely related to the trademark disputes are growing issues over domain names. For instance, The Tea Party Patriots, a national organization that coordinates and supports more than 1,000 grassroots organizations, has challenged other domain name registrations that feature the Tea Party mark. The Tea Party Patriots established their domain name in 2009, approximately the same time they sought to protect the TEA Tea Party Patriots mark with a federal trademark filing. The Tea Party Patriots have forced the transfer of six domain names. One ruling found that the group had established rights to their Tea Party Patriots mark by creating websites boasting almost 120,000 members and forums attracting thousands of daily visitors.

Given the highly emotional rhetoric and lack of national or state party leadership, disputes between groups claiming ownership over the Tea Party movement’s intellectual property are likely to increase. Mark Williams, former leader of the Tea Party Express, said “there are millions of tea partiers involved in thousands of groups; every Tea Partier is a Tea Party leader. But something happens when the stronger egos and personalities in a movement feel a sense of ownership. It is not long before they act to claim and defend that feeling. “

Internal discord within the Tea Party means various groups will seek control and authority over the movement. As a result, legal battles over the use of intellectual property associated with the movement are inevitable. Just as the Tea Party movement has presented difficult issues for political strategists, it has also created unprecedented IP problems for political campaigns and organizations.

Christopher Ott is an attorney at in the Washington office of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP and Steven Kochheiser is a third-year law student at Ohio Northern University College of Law.