Redskins Trademark Name Revoked by U.S. Patent Office

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redskins2Washington Redskins football team, associated with Native Americans since 1932 when it originated as the Braves in Boston, has lost its most recent case in a short history of law suits alleging their name and logo are disparaging to Native Americans.


This case was filed by five Native Americans. Hardly a class action representing first nation people as a whole.


In fact, only a small percentage of Americans, including Native Americans, find the name offensive. A series of polls taken by a variety of organizations beginning in 2004 found an overwhelming majority of American Indians found the name acceptable. In 2004, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that 91% of the American Indians surveyed in the 48 states on the mainland USA found the name acceptable. A 2013 USA Today poll found widespread support for the Redskins name. The poll indicated that 79% of Americans polled believed that the Redskins should keep their name. A 2014 AP poll showed that 83% felt the team should keep its name.


Furthermore, University of Memphis Professor Luvell Anderson, who specializes in the philosophy of language and philosophy of race and has published articles on racial slurs argues that, for a term to be a slur, it must communicate ideas beyond identifying a targeted group. Professor Anderson’s work concentrates on the semantics and ethics of racial language and racist humor and the normativity of offense.


Nevertheless, this was reported today by the Washington Post:

The United States Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Washington Redskins trademark registration, calling the football team’s name “disparaging to Native Americans.”
The landmark case, which appeared before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, was filed on behalf of five Native Americans. It was the second time such a case was filed.


“This victory was a long time coming and reflects the hard work of many attorneys at our firm,” said lead attorney Jesse Witten, of Drinker Biddle & Reath.


Federal trademark law does not permit registration of trademarks that “may disparage” individuals or groups or “bring them into contempt or disrepute.” The ruling pertains to six different trademarks associated with the team, each containing the word “Redskin.”


“We are extraordinarily gratified to have prevailed in this case,” Alfred Putnam Jr., the chairman of Drinker Biddle & Reath, said. “The dedication and professionalism of our attorneys and the determination of our clients have resulted in a milestone victory that will serve as an historic precedent.”


The ruling does not mean that the Redskins have to change the name of the team. It does affect whether the team and the NFL can make money from merchandising because it limits the team’s legal options when others use the logos and the name on T shirts, sweatshirts, beer glasses and license plate holders.


In addition, Native Americans have won at this stage before, in 1999. But the team and the NFL won an appeal to U.S. District Court in 2003. The court did not rule on the merits of the case, however, but threw it out, saying that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to file it. The team is likely to make the same appeal this time. Team officials are expected to make a statement this morning.The United States Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Washington Redskins trademark registration, calling the football team’s name “disparaging to Native Americans.”

Is this a case of a vocal few and a federal agency exercising its bureaucratic power unnecessarily? I think so.

THBby T.M. Burroughs

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