In a landmark ruling on Wednesday, the United States Patent Office canceled six Washington Redskins trademarks because it determined that “Redskin” is “disparaging” to Native Americans.
As USA Today noted before the ruling, the Redskins would still be allowed to use the mark “even if it loses on appeal.” But since “federally registered trademarks keep others from selling items with the team’s logos,” the effect of the ruling “would be large” and dent the team’s profits even if the Redskins “try to keep unauthorized merchandisers from using the marks through common law and state statues.”
As the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board emphasized in the 2-1 ruling, federal law “prohibits registration of marks that may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute.” The Board said it found the evidence “overwhelmingly supports a determination that” the team’s name is “disparaging.”
Administrative Trademark Judge Karen Kuhlke noted in the opinion that the respondent introduced “evidence that some in the Native American community do not find the term ‘Redskin’ disparaging when it is used in connection with professional football,” but she said it ultimately “does not negate the opinions of those who find it disparaging.”
“The ultimate decision is based on whether the evidence shows that a substantial composite of the Native American population found the term ‘Redskins’ to be disparaging when the respective registrations issued,” she wrote. “Therefore, once a substantial composite has been found, the mere existence of differing opinions cannot change the conclusion.”
Kuhlke said the Judges concluded that, “based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered, in violation of Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act of 1946, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a).”
Kuhkle also noted that the “decision concerns only the statutory right to registration” and the Board lacks the “statutory authority to issue rulings concerning the right to use trademarks.”
Five Native American plaintiffs testified that “Redskin” was disparaging, with one plaintiff equating it to the “N-word.”
“This victory was a long time coming and reflects the hard work of many attorneys at our firm,” lead attorney Jesse Witten said in a statement.
In May, 50 U.S. Senators signed a letter urging the NFL to force the team to change its name. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said the name could be changed within the next three years. Redskins owner Dan Snyder has vowed to “NEVER” change the team’s name and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, after first saying that the NFL had to listen if even one person were offended, has repeatedly supported the team’s name since.