‘Redskins’ may cost team intellectual property protection

“What’s in a name?” has a very different meaning for California fans of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet than it does to U.S. Patent Office officials. However, the question remained the same as the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board considered words identifying a professional football team. This isn’t the first time the board stripped the Washington Redskins of its trademarks for using a word increasingly perceived as offensive.

The board’s 1999 ruling to cancel the team’s federal trademarks was overturned on appeal in 2003 for several reasons, including “insufficient evidence” that the name “Redskins” was disparaging when trademarks were issued. Three years later, a new case with different Native American plaintiffs was filed. This time, the evidence was considerable.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board reviewed testimony from linguists, published works, clips of movies and historical evidence that Native Americans – at the time the trademarks were granted – were insulted and offended. The plaintiffs’ legal counsel is just as confident the trademarks will stay banned as the team’s attorneys are that the board’s decision will be, once again, overturned.

Public perception has changed significantly from the time of the first legal go-round. Civil rights groups, Capitol Hill lawmakers and even the president have placed pressure on the National Football League to force Washington to change the name. The owner has refused to budge although, technically, the trademark board’s ruling doesn’t affect the team name directly.

The football team’s appeal has put the trademark board’s ruling on hold. If trademark cancellation is upheld, the team forfeits intellectual property protection that can lead to serious revenue losses. American Indian representatives said they want to ensure the team doesn’t profit by “denigrating” Native Americans.

Court date waits and appeals can stretch out intellectual property cases for years. Many litigants decide that the extended time or financial investment to resolve issues is not worth it. Another option is to negotiate a settlement.

Source: CBS DC, “U.S. Patent Office Rules ‘Redskins’ Name Disparaging, Cancels Trademarks” CBS DC and Associated Press, Jun. 18, 2014