The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office cancelled six trademark registrations held by the NFL’s Washington Redskins franchise on June 18, and because of disrespect upon Native Americans implied by those trademarks.
In a complaint first filed in 2006, the argument of five Native American plaintiffs was that the team name violated specific law [Section 2(a), 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a)] that blocks trademark issuance to any mark or symbol that “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute(.)” The term “Redskins” violates that law because it carries a disrespectful connotation, the plaintiffs said, unlike other Native American mascot names that make no negative insinuation, such as Chiefs, Braves and Indians.
USPTO agreed, noting in its decision that “these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered(.)” The decision reflects on six trademarks owned by the NFL franchise, including uses of the name with and without the profile image of a Native American, as well as the name and logo of the “Redskinettes,” the football team’s cheerleading squad.
"I am extremely happy that (USPTO) ruled in our favor," said Amanda Blackhorse, one of the five complainants. "It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans."
The decision is limited, however, USPTO notes. “This decision concerns only the statutory right to registration,” reads the ruling of its Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. “We lack statutory authority to issue rulings concerning the right to use trademarks.” (Italicized emphasis included in original.) Moreover, its ruling recalls, USPTO issued the same decision in a 1992 complaint against the same logos, but which the franchise later had overturned in a federal appeals court.
The team intends to seek the same route of appeal in this instance, too, its legal team said shortly after today’s ruling. Franchise attorney Robert 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.”
A Congressional advocate of the ruling isn’t letting the risk of appeal dampen her excitement, however. “This is not the end of the case,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), “but this is a landmark decision by the patent office that says that the NFL team here in Washington, D.C. does not have a patentable name and that this is an offensive term not patentable by the Patent Office.” Earlier this year, Cantwell got other senators to co-sign her letter to the NFL, asking that it cease use of the Redskins’ name.
First franchised in 1932 as the Boston Braves, the team name changed to “Redskins” the following year. Declared reasons for the change in mascot names were to avoid confusion with the baseball team with the same name, and to honor the football team’s coach, William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, who claimed to be a Sioux Indian. Census records note that Dietz was solely Caucasian, however.