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Entertainment & Sports Law

Washington Redskins team loses trademark registration

Posted Jun 18, 2014 9:54 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Six trademarks associated with the Washington Redskins must be canceled because the name is disparaging to Native Americans, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has ruled.

The team is likely to appeal the ruling, the Washington Post reports. Politico and USA Today also have coverage.

Even if the team loses an appeal, it could retain the name but would lose the lucrative benefits of trademark protection, the stories say.

The appeal board said the issue was whether the trademarks were disparaging to "a substantial composite" of Native Americans, rather than the American public as a whole, at the time of registration, between 1967 and 1990. The board answered in the affirmative.

The evidence included a resolution by the National Congress of American Indians, the deposition of its executive director, the opinions of linguistics experts and newspaper articles.

The term "redskin" was widely used in newspaper articles before the 1960s and little used after that, except for references to the football team, peaches and potatoes, the opinion says. Many of the post-1960s "redskin" references to Native Americans were used in stories describing racial slurs or discrimination, as in the case of a plaintiff who won a race discrimination suit because he was called "chief," "Indian Joe" and "redskin."

Dictionaries show a similar trend. Beginning in 1966 and continuing to 1990, usage labels increasingly indicated the term "redskin" to be offensive, disparaging, contemptuous or not preferred.

The appeal board also found that the doctrine of laches did not bar consideration of the case. If the doctrine applied, the board said, a trademark determined to be a racial slur could be retained “in blatant violation of the Trademark Act’s prohibition against registration of such matter, merely because an individual plaintiff ‘unreasonably delayed’ in filing a petition to cancel.”

A dissent said the case was filed by new petitioners relying mostly on evidence from a prior proceeding that was deemed insufficient. That case, filed in 1992, also challenged the Redskins trademark. The plaintiffs succeeded at this same stage in 1999, but a federal court ruled on appeal in 2009 that the suit was barred by the doctrine of laches.

Robert Raskopf, a lawyer for the Redskins, noted the prior ruling. “We’ve seen this story before,” he told the Washington Post. “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."

Updated at 1:20 p.m. to include Raskopf's comment.

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