Redskins’ ‘disparaging’ trademark canceled by patent office

Washington Redskins helmets rest on the field during minicamp at Redskins Park on Tuesday.
Geoff Burke | USA Today Sports
Washington Redskins helmets rest on the field during minicamp at Redskins Park on Tuesday.
Posted June 18, 2014, at 10:33 a.m.
Last modified June 18, 2014, at 4:02 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Washington Redskins football team’s trademark registration for its nickname was canceled Wednesday by a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office appeals board, limiting the club’s ability to prevent its use by others.

The ruling doesn’t prevent the National Football League franchise from continuing to use the nickname, the office said in a statement.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, an independent administrative tribunal within the patent office, determined that the petitioners established that the term “Redskins” was “disparaging” of Native Americans, so federal trademark registrations must be canceled, it said in the statement.

The ruling is the most recent clash in a 22-year fight between the franchise and American Indians over the team’s nickname. It may provide more pressure on Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the name, said Monica Riva Talley, a trademark lawyer with Sterne Kessler in Washington.

“It should be viewed as additional evidence that this term is disparaging and offensive, and it might help swing public opinion as to whether this should be the name of the team in the nation’s capital,” Talley said in a telephone interview.

The Redskins won a separate appeals court ruling in May 2009 over whether the trademarks should be canceled, ending a legal fight that began in 1992. The court ruled that the plaintiffs waited too long to complain. The new petition involved younger people.

Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, didn’t have an immediate comment about the ruling. Tony Wyllie, a spokesman for the Redskins, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

The team, founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves, was renamed in 1933 as the Boston Redskins in honor of its head coach, an American Indian, according to court records. The team moved to the District of Columbia in 1937.

The trademark will remain intact until after any judicial review is completed.

The case, Blackhorse vs. Pro Football Inc., the closely held parent company of the Redskins, was a joint petition filed by five Native Americans, who sought cancellation of six federal trademark registrations that included the term “Redskins.”

The team asserted in its defense that the cancellation shouldn’t be allowed because the registrations had existed for decades and been the subject of significant investment, though the board “found the defense inapplicable as to the petitioners’ case,” it said.

Among the benefits of trademark registration are the legal presumption of ownership and a nationwide scope of rights related to the mark; the ability to use the federal registration symbol; and the ability to register the mark with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Service to block the import of counterfeit goods.

The board determines only whether a mark can be registered with the U.S. government, not whether it can be used. The team may still have rights in the mark based on use, known as “common law” rights, and such rights may continue to exist even if a federal registration is canceled, the board said.

The Redskins can file an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, or file a civil action in district court.

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