Redskins’ ‘Disparaging’ Trademark Canceled by Patent Office

The Washington Redskins lost a trademark decision after a federal agency ruled the team’s name disparaged Native Americans, threatening millions of dollars in sales of everything from football jerseys to beer coolers.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office appeals board ruling doesn’t prevent the National Football League franchise from continuing to use the nickname, the office said in a statement.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, an independent administrative tribunal within the patent office, determined that the petitioners established that the term “Redskins” was “disparaging” of Native Americans, so federal trademark registrations must be canceled, it said in the statement.

The ruling is the most recent clash in a 22-year fight between the franchise and American Indians over the team’s nickname. It may provide more pressure on Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change the name, said Monica Riva Talley, a trademark lawyer with Sterne Kessler in Washington.

“It should be viewed as additional evidence that this term is disparaging and offensive, and it might help swing public opinion as to whether this should be the name of the team in the nation’s capital,” Talley said in a telephone interview.

The trademark will remain intact until after any judicial review is completed.

The Redskins won a separate appeals court ruling in May 2009 over whether the trademarks should be canceled, ending a legal fight that began in 1992. The court ruled that the plaintiffs waited too long to complain. The new petition involved younger people.

Redskins’ Statement

Bob Raskopf, an attorney for the Redskins, said in a statement posted to the team’s website that “of course we will appeal.”

“We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal,” the statement said. “This case is no different than an earlier case, where the board canceled the Redskins’ trademark registrations, and where a federal district court disagreed and reversed the board.”

Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, responded to a request for league reaction by noting the team’s statement.

The team, founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves, was renamed in 1933 as the Boston Redskins in honor of its head coach, an American Indian, according to court records. The team moved to the District of Columbia in 1937.

The Redskins ranked 10th in merchandise sales of the NFL’s 32 teams as of October, according to the league, which has about $9.7 billion in annual revenue. Merchandise revenue is shared equally among NFL teams.

Snyder’s Stand

Snyder has said repeatedly that he won’t change the name of the team because its intent is to honor Native Americans. In March he announced the creation of a foundation to aid Native Americans after the team visited dozens of reservations. Snyder paid a record $800 million for the franchise in 1999. It’s now worth $1.7 billion, making it the third-most valuable NFL team, according to Forbes.

The group began a campaign last September aimed at forcing the team to change its nickname. The Oneida Indian Nation, which created the campaign, and the National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI, applauded the board ruling.

“If the most basic sense of morality, decency and civility has not yet convinced the Washington team and the NFL to stop using this hateful slur, then hopefully today’s patent ruling will, if only because it imperils the ability of the team’s billionaire owner to keep profiting off the denigration and dehumanization of Native Americans,” Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter and NCAI Executive Director Jackie Pata said in a joint statement.

Senate Support

Half the U.S. Senate last month urged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to support a name change, noting the quick action National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver took to confront racist remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Today’s decision “is a sad reminder of a long tradition of racism and bigotry,” U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said in a statement.

“The writing is on the wall,” Reid said. “It is on the wall in giant, blinking, neon lights.”

The case, Blackhorse v Pro Football Inc., the closely held parent company of the Redskins, was a joint petition filed by five native Americans, who sought cancellation of six federal trademark registrations that included the term “Redskins.”

Team’s Defense

The team asserted in its defense that the cancellation shouldn’t be allowed because the registrations had existed for decades and been the subject of significant investment, though the board “found the defense inapplicable as to the petitioners’ case,” it said.

Among the benefits of trademark registration are the legal presumption of ownership and a nationwide scope of rights related to the mark; the ability to use the federal registration symbol; and the ability to register the mark with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Service to block the import of counterfeit goods.

The board determines only whether a mark can be registered with the U.S. government, not whether it can be used. The team may still have rights to the mark based on use, known as “common law” rights, and such rights may continue to exist even if a federal registration is canceled, the board said.

Appeal Avenues

The Redskins can file an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, or file a civil action in district court.

“It’s a significant moment,” Amy Trask, the former chief executive officer of the Oakland Raiders, said in an interview. “The government has said, ‘Look, we agree with the dictionary. The dictionary defines this word as a derogatory slur. We agree with that definition and we will not protect the marks and logos anymore.’”

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