Lanham Act 75th Anniversary
The life and legacy of Frederick “Fritz” G. Lanham (1880-1965)—Texan, author, editor, playwright, lawyer, congressman.
Written by Craig Stone
This is a portrait of Frederick “Fritz” Garland Lanham, one of the most notable U.S. congressmen and lawyers you have likely never come across unless you are a practicing attorney in the field of trademark law. Even today, regular intellectual property practitioners are just now learning about the significant impact this individual had on the current federal trademark statute and primary vehicle brand owners continue to use today to secure protection and enforce their rights 75 years after the statute was enacted. Even if IP is not your primary practice area, as an in-house lawyer, you have undoubtedly handled or come across a trademark issue on behalf of your company. The importance of trademark protection for companies and brand owners cannot be understated. It provides the consuming public with confidence and assurance that the goods and services being sought are genuine, of a high quality, and have emanated from the legitimate source identified by the trademark or service mark. Recent figures place the value of intangible assets at an estimated 84% of the S&P 500’s total value, or more than $20 trillion in value. Trademarks are the chief representation and embodiment of a company’s reputation and serve to create a powerful emotional relationship between brand owners and consumers. Quite literally, without trademarks and trademark protection, our economy and the ability to effectively and efficiently market and sell goods and services would not be possible.
Although a significant contributor across a wide scope of federal legislation and other notable projects, Lanham is most known for his influence in the field of U.S. federal trademark law, the primary statute of which bears his name, the “Lanham Act,” which Rep. Lanham championed for years until its adoption in 1946. This year marks the 75th anniversary of this significant piece of legislation that governs the way in which trademarks and the legal rights of brand owners are uniformly protected in our country under federal law. The Lanham Act governs federal trademark registration, trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and false advertising in the United States. This landmark piece of legislation enables consumers to confidently identify and differentiate between the hundreds of thousands of brands inundating the marketplace every day and to distinguish, with confidence, as to the nature and quality associated with the products and services we enjoy in our daily lives. The act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946 and took effect on July 5, 1947. Today, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office receives more than 500,000 applications annually and issues on average about 350,000 federal registrations each year. Since its enactment, the Lanham Act has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 57 decisions and by federal and state courts across the country in over 34,000 decisions.
Before his illustrious career as a congressman, Lanham earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in 1900 and pursued graduate studies in law at the university until 1903. Although he never completed his law degree, Lanham was admitted to the Texas Bar in 1909, where he practiced in his hometown of Weatherford. While at Texas, Lanham was more than just a student; he became the first editor of The Texan, the school newspaper (now known as The Daily Texan) beginning in fall 1900 and held the job until early 1901. In his first editorial, Fritz said the paper’s goal should be “ultimately to please the student body.” While he acknowledged there were always two sides to every issue, he said The Texan should present only “the proper one.” Lanham wrote most frequently about the extracurricular topic that was most important to the university community–football. Lanham wore many hats throughout his successful life as a student and alumnus. He was an author, newspaper editor, playwright, and founder of The Alcalde, the alumni publication of the University of Texas, one of the most successful and widely circulated publications of its kind today.
Lanham had deep ties to Texas history and politics. He was one of eight children of Samuel and Sara Lanham. His father served as governor of Texas and as a congressman from Texas. It was Samuel, while serving as Texas governor, who convinced him to take a year off prior to attending law school and serve as the governor’s personal secretary. This was Lanham’s introduction into the world of politics.
In 1919, Lanham won a special election to Congress in Texas’ 12th Congressional District (encompassing Fort Worth and Weatherford), succeeding fellow Democrat James Clifton Wilson, who resigned to accept a federal judgeship on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. Lanham would go on to serve in Congress from 1919 to 1947. Lanham was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. While in Congress, Lanham served on several committees, including the Committee on Patents. By the time he retired, not only had Lanham left an indelible mark on American commerce, but he also simultaneously oversaw the construction of numerous federal buildings across the country, including participating on the planning committee for the design and construction of the U.S. Supreme Court Building.
Although Lanham never practiced trademark law, he became convinced during his time in Congress that the nation’s trademark laws needed to be modernized and expanded to provide stronger protection for brand owners. Lanham introduced House Resolution 9041 in 1938, and over the next eight years, he worked tirelessly to accomplish what was called the “Herculean task” of convincing Congress to broaden trademark protection through passage of what we now call the Lanham Act—an effort that was strongly opposed by the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice.
The Lanham Act resulted in the repealing of the previously enacted acts of 1881 (narrowly protecting federal trademark registrations of foreign nations and Indian tribes) and the acts of 1905 and 1920 (prohibiting willful or intentional misrepresentation of trademarks but often considered too restrictive to be useful). Passed on July 5, 1946, and effective one year later, this federal statute (now codified under Title 15 of the United States Code) has served as the primary vehicle by which brand owners have a federal right to more broadly and effectively protect their trademarks. The statute also sets out the actions and remedies available for registered and unregistered trademark infringement. In addition, this federal statute prohibits the importation of goods that infringe federally registered trademarks, the use of false designations or origin and trademark dilution, which protects brands with significant notoriety and fame. Most significantly, the Lanham Act allowed for additional causes of action for owners of unregistered marks. In addition, the act eliminated the requirement of “willfulness” or “intent to deceive” as a necessary element to prevail in a trademark action under federal law.
Shortly after his seminal accomplishment, Lanham retired from Congress and returned to Texas to live out his life doing the things he loved to do—reading, writing poetry, preaching on Sundays as a lay minister in the Methodist Church, and entertaining children with magic tricks.
Lanham was reelected 13 times and served with distinction until his retirement in 1946. His congressional papers are maintained at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. After his retirement from Congress, Lanham remained in Washington, D.C., to work as a lobbyist for the National Patent Council. Lanham died on July 31, 1965, at Seton Hospital in Austin. He is buried at City Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford (due west of Fort Worth).
Lanham was truly loved by those who knew him—a consummate gentleman, a man of uncompromising standards and ethics, and a gifted politician. After Lanham’s death, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in a lead editorial titled “Lanham, Gentleman of the Golden Age,” wrote: “Classically educated, courtly, urbane and eloquent, Mr. Lanham was so much the gentleman that many thought this a handicap to his political career. It never appeared to be. He was a highly effective legislator and had a rare influence with his colleagues, who knew him to be unswervingly a man of his word.” Those who knew him are in complete agreement that Lanham was always a gentleman. The federal building in Fort Worth now bears his name to honor Lanham’s remarkable influence and legacy.
This year we take time to reflect and remember Lanham’s legacy and his great effort and support of this important milestone in trademark history and recognize the role and influence he had on directly shaping federal trademark law that still serves us today. Although the landscape in 2021 certainly has changed since the 1940s and Lanham could never have imagined how the economy and commerce would be impacted by the internet and the tiny handheld devices we carry with us throughout the day, it is a great testament to the elected officials who crafted a strong backbone of laws that still serve us well today in our globally connected and digitally driven economic universe.
Inspired by the 75th anniversary of the Lanham Act, and to help celebrate Lanham’s contributions and honor his legacy, a group of Texas lawyers recently founded a new nonprofit known as the Texas Intellectual Property Law Foundation. The aim of the foundation is to undertake initiatives and activities not permitted by the traditional section under the current rules and procedures of the State Bar of Texas.
The anniversary will be celebrated at the IP Section’s virtual Annual Meeting (June 17-18, 2021). Please go to the section’s website to catch up on all upcoming events occurring in 2021 to celebrate this milestone: www.lanham75.org.TBJ
This article was adapted from an article previously published in the International Trademark Association’s Bulletin in January 2021 and has been reprinted with permission.
is senior counsel, Intellectual Property for Phillips 66 Company, where his practice focuses on all aspects of brand protection and other IP-related areas, including licensing, enforcement, social media, software development, data privacy, cybersecurity, and patent litigation. Stone is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Baylor University School of Law, and is serving a three-year term on the State Bar of Texas Intellectual Property Section Council following his role as chair of the Trademarks Committee.