'The Slants' Trademark Win in Court May Boost Redskins Case

  • U.S. court says the government can't reject disparaging marks
  • Ruling could help the Washington Redskins keep trademark

An appeals court ruling in favor of an Asian-American rock band may help the Washington Redskins in a fight over the team’s name.

The band’s name, The Slants, “conveys more about our society than many volumes of undisputedly protected speech,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said in a free-speech ruling on Tuesday. The court said the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shouldn’t have rejected the group’s trademark application.

“The government cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks,” Circuit Judge Kimberly Moore wrote for the majority.

The ruling may help Washington’s National Football League team, which cited free-speech principles in its ongoing appeal of a separate court ruling stripping the club of some trademark protections. The cases each concern the same section of law, said Ronald Coleman, a partner at Archer & Greiner P.C. who represented The Slants before the appeals court.

“The Redskins are pretty happy campers,” Coleman said after the ruling.

The decision has little practical effect on the band and can help clear the way for trademarks for small- and medium-sized businesses that don’t have the resources to fight the government, Coleman said.

Legislation Ban

For years, the band has been trying to trademark its moniker, which is also a derogatory term sometimes used for Asian people. On April 20, an appeals court in Washington upheld the Patent and Trademark Office’s rejection of the band’s request.

The main question was whether the First Amendment right to free speech trumps a legislative ban on disparaging trademarks.

The Redskins in July lost some protection for the team’s controversial name after a federal judge ruled it may be disparaging to Native Americans. The decision didn’t bar the team’s commercial use of the trademarked name, but opened the door to copycats seeking to profit from it. The ruling left intact a decision in 2014 by the Patent and Trademark Office to cancel six trademarks.

In the Slants case, Circuit Judge Timothy Dyk said in a dissenting opinion that the court was correct about the band’s name but went too far in deeming unconstitutional the section of law at issue.

Patrick Ross, a spokesman for the Patent and Trademark Office, didn’t immediately return a telephone call. Tony Wyllie, a Redskins spokesman, didn’t immediately supply a comment.

The cases are In re Simon Shiao Tam, 14-1203, U.S. Court of Appeals for the
Federal Circuit; and Pro-Football Inc. v. Blackhorse, 15-1874, U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Richmond).

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