On Wednesday, the appeals board of the Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins trademarks — including the team’s stylized Indian head logo — saying the Redskins name is “disparaging to Native Americans.”
The patent appeals board sided with five Native Americans who argued that the Redskins name and its accompanying trademarks should’ve never been registered by the Patent Office, because the name disparages Native Americans.
The five defendants — Amanda Blackhorse, Phillip Glover, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh — have been fighting for eight years to cancel the team’s trademarks, arguing that trademarks “may not disparage” individuals or groups or “bring them into contempt or disrepute.”
A dissenting judge on the three-judge appeals board questioned the decision, saying that whatever the feelings about the Redskins name today, the appeals board was supposed to be ruling about whether the trademarks were was viewed as disparaging at the time they were registered. He noted that years ago, the trademarks weren’t viewed that way.
Lawyers who represented the Native American groups called the case a “milestone victory.”
“We presented a wide variety of evidence — including dictionary definitions and other reference works, newspaper clippings, movie clips, scholarly articles, expert linguist testimony, and evidence of the historic opposition by Native American groups — to demonstrate that the word ‘redskin’ is an ethnic slur,” said Jesse Witten, the lead partner of Drinker, Biddle & Reath, who handled the case.
The move put pressure on team owner Daniel Snyder and the NFL to replace the Redskins name. That pressure was further ramped up by the reaction from Capitol Hill.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. called on Snyder to finally act to replace the name.
“There are 27 tribes in Nevada. This issue regarding the name ‘Redskins’ is so important to them. Every time they hear this name, it is a sad reminder of a long tradition of racism and bigotry,” said Reid. “The decision today makes one thing very clear: The writing is on the wall. It is on the wall in giant, blinking, neon lights. This name will change and justice will be done for the tribes in Nevada and across the nation who care so deeply about this issue.”
House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., offered similar views.
“The team that represents our nation’s capital should be a source of pride to all Americans,” she said. “It’s long past time for the Washington football team to choose a new name.”
The patent appeals board’s decision could cost the NFL and the Redskins millions of dollars in sales for merchandise, but doesn’t prevent the team or the NFL from continuing to use the Redskins name.
The NFL and the team are expected to appeal the board’s ruling to circuit court, where they’ve overturned a similar ruling once before. Officials didn’t return a request for comment.
While the patent appeals board said the trademarks shouldn’t have been registered because they’re “disparaging,” the board said it didn’t have authority to stop the Redskins from continuing to use them.
The most immediate question is whether the ruling could jeopardize the team’s rights to control exclusive use of its trademarks and logos in connection with merchandise and sponsorships. Without exclusive rights to the trademarks, rival makers of jerseys, beer and merchandise might have the ability to use the Redskins trademarks without paying.