In what’s expected to put significantly more pressure on Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change his team's name, the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team's trademarks on the basis that it is “disparaging to Native Americans.”
In its 2-1 ruling issued on Wednesday, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, an independent tribunal within the USPTO, wrote that it was charged with determining only whether the trademark was offensive to the people it referenced, not the entire U.S. population. Five Native Americans, representing four tribes, brought the case against the league in 2006.
Although the Redskins name and past logos are involved in the decision, the trademarks that were canceled do not include the current Redskins logo.
“Petitioners have found a preponderance of evidence that a substantial amount of Native Americans found the term Redskins to be disparaging when used in connection with professional football,” the ruling said. “While this may reveal differing opinions with the community, it does not negate the opinions of those who find it disparaging.”
The ruling doesn't force the team to abandon the name, but it comes at a time of increasing criticism of team owner Dan Snyder from political, religious and sports figures.
The Redskins plan to appeal, and the cancellation for trademark protections will be on hold while the matter makes its way through the courts. That process could take years.
It was the second time since 1999 the patent office had lifted the Redskins’ trademark, and a federal court overturned the first decision in 2003.
“We’ve seen this story before, and just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo,” Redskins trademark attorney Bob Raskopf said in a statement.
Though anyone seemingly could set up shop and sell Redskins merchandise without paying royalties to the team or the NFL, legal experts said the Redskins still could retain what is known as a “common law trademark” and recoup damages through legal action.
“This ruling – which of course we will appeal – simply addresses the team’s federal trademark registrations, and the team will continue to own and be able to protect its marks without the registrations,” the Redskins’ Raskopf said. “The registrations will remain effective while the case is on appeal.”
The NFL declined comment, referring questions to the Redskins.
The “Change the Mascot” campaign spearheaded by the Oneida Indian Nation in upstate New York – which conducted season-long protests against the team last fall – praised Wednesday’s ruling as “momentous.”
They also noted the 2003 ruling to overturn the patent office’s decision was based on procedural grounds.
“The U.S. Patent Office has now restated the obvious truth that Native Americans, civil rights leaders, athletes, religious groups, state legislative bodies, Members of Congress and the president have all echoed: taxpayer resources cannot be used to help private companies profit off the promotion of dictionary defined racial slurs,” Oneida representative Ray Halbritter said in a statement.