The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration because the NFL team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans.”
The case, the second of its kind, was filed on behalf of five Native Americans. A 1992 suit had been thrown out on a technicality because some of the plaintiffs had waited too long after turning 18 years old to file the suit.
The appeals board ruled Wednesday that the term had been considered offensive by at least 30 percent of Native Americans since at least the 1960s, and its decision canceled six trademark registrations made since then.
Federal trademark law prohibits registration of trademarks that “may disparage” individuals or groups or “bring them into contempt or disrepute.”
“The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place,” said Jesse Witten, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “We presented a wide variety of evidence – including dictionary definitions and other reference works, newspaper clippings, movie clips, scholarly articles, expert linguist testimony, and evidence of the historic opposition by Native American groups – to demonstrate that the word ‘redskin’ is an ethnic slur.”
The team’s lawyers introduced evidence that some Native Americans do not find the term disparaging when used in connection with professional football, but the appeals board determined that “does not negate the opinions of those who find it disparaging.”
“The ultimate decision is based on whether the evidence shows that a substantial composite of the Native American population found the term ‘Redskins’ to be disparaging when the respective registrations issued,” the board ruled. “Therefore, once a substantial composite has been found, the mere existence of differing opinions cannot change the conclusion.”
The team will appeal the decision, which will allow them to enjoy exclusive use of the trademark.
But if the patent board’s decision stands, anyone could begin selling Redskins merchandise – although it’s not clear whether the team’s logo would remain trademarked.
[Image via Lee Diehr, Creative Commons licensed]