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Will the Government Force the Redskins to Change their Name?

On June 18, the United States Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO") cancelled the Washington Redskins' trademark in its team name, concluding that the term "Redskin" was racially offensive and derogatory towards Native Americans. 

Under the Lanham Act, Federal Trademark Law prohibits the registration of trademarks that "may disparage" individuals or groups or "bring them into contempt or disrepute."  In a controversial 2-1 decision, the USPTO agreed with a group of petitioners who claimed the team name was disparaging to Native Americans, and thus was not permitted to receive the protections afforded by trademark law. The Washington Redskins plan to appeal the decision and have responded by saying that the term is meant to honor Native Americans and is not considered offensive by many.

The ruling will make it more difficult for the Redskins to protect against individuals attempting to profit off of its likeness, and could hurt merchandise sales. Without the protection of Federal Trademark Law, the team will be forced to rely on state and common law to prevent counterfeits, which would leave the Redskins in a much less secure situation and would likely result in a major loss in profits. However, the ruling in no way prevents the Redskins from using its name or distributing new merchandise.

While the debate over the team name has hit a high lately with increased media scrutiny and recent comments made by President Obama, the controversy is nothing new. In fact, USPTO cancelled the Redskins' trademark in a similar ruling in 1999. That decision was ultimately appealed and reversed. Many believe the same will happen with the latest ruling. It is also important to note that while the appeal is pending, the team maintains all of its federal trademark protections. The appeal from 1999 wasn't decided until 2003, meaning that it could be a long time before the team feels the effects of the ruling. In the end, the ruling is probably more symbolically significant than legally or economically impactful, and could pressure the NFL and its owners to force Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder to rethink his stance on changing the name of one of the NFL's longest running franchises.

  • This is a tweet from former Redskins' Quarterback Joe Theismann, which the team retweeted:
  • This is a tweet about the effects of the decision, also found on the team's twitter page:
redskins to change their name

Categories: Trademarks

Photo of Zachary W. Behler

As a licensed patent attorney,  handles matters such as patent prosecution, patent infringement litigation, patent portfolio administration, trademarks, trade secrets, and copyrights protection.

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