The United States Patent and Trademark Office on Wednesday morning canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name of the Washington Redskins after ruling that the name is "disparaging to Native Americans."
"We decide, 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," the board wrote in its opinion.
The ruling was in response to Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc., a petition requesting the term "Redskins" be stripped of its trademark protections. And with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's decision, the National Football League loses benefits of federal registration of the trademark, including the use of the federal registration symbol.
The franchise is the third-most valuable team in the NFL at $1.7 billion. Now that Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and the NFL have lost the trademark on the team name, anyone will be free to sell merchandise with the nickname without the NFL receiving proceeds. All 32 NFL teams share proceeds, so the entire league would see a loss.
The ruling does not guarantee the team's name will be changed, but opponents of the name are hopeful it will put enough pressure on the NFL and the Washington franchise.
"I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed," plaintiff Amanda Blackhorse said. "The team's name is racist and derogatory."
The Washington Redskins have since issued a statement saying that the ruling will have "no effect at all" on the team's ownership and use of the Redskins name:
We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board's divided ruling will be overturned on appeal. This case is no different than an earlier case, where the Board cancelled the Redskins' trademark registrations, and where a federal district court disagreed and reversed the Board.
As today's dissenting opinion correctly states, "the same evidence previously found insufficient to support cancellation" here "remains insufficient" and does not support cancellation.
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 registrations will remain effective while the case is on appeal.
When the case first arose more than 20 years ago, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled on appeal in favor of the Washington Redskins and their trademark registrations.
As the district court's ruling made clear in 2003, the evidence 'is insufficient to conclude that during the relevant time periods the trademark at issue disparaged Native Americans...' The court continued, 'The Court concludes that the [Board's] finding that the marks at issue 'may disparage' Native Americans is unsupported by substantial evidence, is logically flawed, and fails to apply the correct legal standard to its own findings of fact.' Those aren't my words. That was the court's conclusion. We are confident that when a district court review's today's split decision, it will reach a similar conclusion.
In today's ruling, the Board's Marc Bergsman agreed, concluding in his dissenting opinion:
It is astounding that the petitioners did not submit any evidence regarding the Native American population during the relevant time frame, nor did they introduce any evidence or argument as to what comprises a substantial composite of that population thereby leaving it to the majority to make petitioner's case have some semblance of meaning.
The evidence in the current claim is virtually identical to the evidence a federal judge decided was insufficient more than ten years ago. We expect the same ultimate outcome here.
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