Trademark Law – Washington Redskins’ federal trademark is cancelled

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has cancelled the Washington Redskins’ federal trademark registration for the terms “WASHINGTON REDSKINS,” “REDSKINS,” “THE REDSKINS,” and”REDSKINETTES” for pro football related-services (click here for the PTO’s decision).

The PTO’s decision was based on a US statute (15 USC section 1052(a)) that prohibits registration of trademarks that may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute.  The PTO ruled the Redskins’ trademark registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to a “substantial composite” of Native Americans (“substantial composite” could be but is not necessarily a majority opinion).

The PTO’s determination that Redskins was disparaging was largely based on (1) that dictionaries stated “redskin” was an offensive term starting in the 1960s and by 1986 dictionaries were unanimous in stating it was offensive; (2) the use of “redskin” in common speech, except to refer to the football team, has almost completely stopped; and (3) evidence that a substantial amount of Native American groups and individuals felt the term was disparaging.

The Redskins contended they used the name Redskins with an honorable intent and used it in an honorable manner, but the PTO ruled this was not relevant to its analysis.  The PTO also rejected the Redskins’ argument the Redskins brand is so strong that people think of the football team instead of Native Americans since the Redskins use of the name, primarily the logo of a Native American on the helmet, incorporates numerous references to Native Americans.

This ruling will be appealed, and in the meantime the effect is that the Redskins will not be able to use federal trademark law to protect its use of the name Redskins, but still can use state common law (which is less effective, but better than nothing).

For more on this case, see this Vanity Fair article and this Sports Illustrated article.

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