U.S. Patent Office: Washington Redskins trademarks must be canceled

The U.S. Patent Office has ruled that the Washington Redskins nickname is disparaging to Native Americans and the federal trademark protection should be canceled. The team’s logo is not involved in the decision.
The U.S. Patent Office has ruled that the Washington Redskins nickname is disparaging to Native Americans and the federal trademark protection should be canceled. The team’s logo is not involved in the decision.
Published June 19, 2014

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins' trademark registration Wednesday, a move that won't force the NFL team to change its name but fuels the intense fight by opponents to eliminate what they view as a racial slur against American Indians.

The 99-page decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board said the team's name and logo are disparaging. It dilutes the Redskins' legal protection against infringement and hinders the team's ability to block counterfeit merchandise from entering the country.

But ruling cannot stop the team from selling T-shirts, beer glasses and license-plate holders with the moniker or keep the team from trying to defend itself against others who try to profit from the logo.

The ruling's main impact is as a cudgel by an increasingly vocal group of American Indians, lawmakers, former players and others who are trying to persuade team officials to change the name. The backlash against the name has never been more intense.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who persuaded 49 other members of Congress to send a letter last month to the National Football League on the issue, interrupted a debate on the Senate floor to herald the decision.

"So many people have helped in this effort, and I want to applaud them," Cantwell said. She later said she believes the decision will ultimately force the hands of team owner Daniel Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in ways other efforts have not. "You want to ignore millions of Native Americans?" she said. "Well, it's pretty hard to say the federal government doesn't know what they're talking about when they say it's disparaging."

Snyder has steadfastly refused to consider a name change, saying the name and logo honor American Indians.

Jesse Witten, an attorney for the Indians who filed the case, called the victory "a long time coming." The board had previously ruled in favor of a different group of Indians, led by Suzan Harjo, that filed a similar case in 1992. But that case was later dismissed in the federal courts.

Federal trademark law does not permit registration of trademarks that "may disparage" individuals or groups or "bring them into contempt or disrepute."

Robert Raskopf, a lawyer who has been representing the team since the 1992 case was filed, was not concerned about the ruling. He noted that Wednesday's decision came from a divided panel of judges, with one of the three dissenting, and that the earlier case was won on appeal. In that case, the court did not rule on the merits of the case but ultimately said the plaintiffs did not have standing to file it.

"We've seen this story before," Raskopf said in a statement. "And just like last time, today's ruling will have no effect at all on the team's ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo."

Raskopf said the team's trademark registrations will remain effective during the appeal.

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Through a spokesman, the NFL declined to comment. The NFL Players Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Snyder also declined to comment as he left the practice field at Redskins Park, the team's training facility in Ashburn, Va. Snyder did not verbally acknowledge a reporter's question on the ruling, instead waving his hand and continuing to walk.

Asked whether the Redskins believe they can continue to use their name, the team's president and general manager, Bruce Allen, said: "Did you read it? . . . We're fine. We're fine."

The nation's most popular sports league, the NFL generates revenue estimated at more than $9 billion annually. The Redskins' annual revenue was estimated at $373 million, but it is unclear how much of that comes from merchandise.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has refused to register trademarks containing the word "Redskins" about a dozen times since 1992 on the grounds that the term may disparage American Indians. Among the rejected: Redskins Fanatics, Redskin Pigskins and Washington Redskins Cheerleaders. The latest to be turned down was "Redskins Hog Rinds," which was submitted on behalf of a Capitol Heights, Md., man. In a letter from the agency in December, an examining attorney wrote that it was denied because it contained "a derogatory slang term."

The current lawsuit was brought eight years ago by Amanda Blackhorse, Phillip Glover, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh.

"It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans," Blackhorse said in a statement Wednesday. "I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed."

Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, who was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, also issued a statement, poking fun at Snyder's much-repeated quote that he would "NEVER — you can use caps" — change the name of the team.

"The U.S. Patent Office should never be used to defend a slur. NEVER — you can use caps," Mills said. "The Washington football team claims to listen to public opinions, but many of us question if we've been heard. Today's decision will be heard."

What's affected: Six uses of the "Redskins" name trademarked by the team from 1967 to 1990. The team's logo, seen on players' helmets, is unaffected at this time.

What's next: The Redskins have appealed. The cancellation for trademark protections will be on hold while the matter makes its way through the courts. That process could take years.

If the franchise loses: The team can continue to use the name, but it would lose a significant portion of its ability to protect the financial interests connected to it.

Source: ESPN