The U.S. Patent Office has canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration, ruling that the team’s name is “disparaging of Native Americans.”
The 2-1 decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board does not mean that the Redskins must change their name, but it does limit their ability to protect their brand; federally registered trademarks prevent the sale of merchandise with a team’s logo without permission. And given that the NFL splits revenue from team merchandise and licensing 31 ways (the Dallas Cowboys have their own deal), it means that the entire league would lose money … a fact which could put increased pressure on team owner Daniel Snyder to change the name.
As ESPN points out, from April 1, 2012 to March 2013, the NFL said more jerseys of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III were sold than any player in a single year in league history.
The Redskins are expected to appeal the Board’s decision, and Snyder has previously refused to change the team’s name, citing tradition. But this ruling is unquestionably the largest victory by those campaigning to eliminate the Redskin name; the petitioners included five Native Americans, including Navajo activist Amanda Blackhorse.
In recent months, President Barack Obama, lawmakers from both political parties and civil rights groups have also called for the team to change its name.
Federal trademark law does not allow registration of trademarks that “may disparage” individuals or groups. In this case, the Board’s ruling pertains to six different trademarks associated with the team, each containing the word “Redskin,” meaning that, if the team applied for federal trademark protection for its name today, it would be denied. According to USA Today, in recent years, the Patent Office has refused to register seven applications from the team (including “Redskins Fanatics” and “Redskins Rooters”), on the basis of disparagement.
The decision by the Board is similar to one it issued in 1999. However, that ruling was overturned in 2003, after the courts decided that the plaintiffs should have filed their complaint soon after the Redskins first registered their nickname in 1967. The new case was launched in 2006, and was heard by the board in March of last year.
The Redskins have yet to comment on the ruling, but in a statement, a trademark lawyer for the team said Washington remains confident they will win on appeal (a process that could take years), and will continue to own the Redskins name.
“We’ve seen this story before. 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,” Bob Raskopf said. “We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”