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Patent office ruling strips Redskins trademark

06/19/2014, 12:03am EDT
By BLADE NEWS SERVICES

Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington NFL team, has refused calls to change the name Redskins. He says it is a sign of respect. ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — A government agency Wednesday canceled the trademark registration of the name Redskins for the NFL team, saying that “a substantial composite of Native Americans found the term Redskins to be disparaging.”

The ruling, which the team said it would appeal, is the latest indication of mounting disapproval of one of the league’s most established brands.

Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, has rebuffed criticism of the name and insisted that he would not change it, and Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, has supported him.

The decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, was hailed by some Native American groups and members of Congress who have pressured Mr. Goodell to force Mr. Snyder to abandon the name.

The board does not have the authority to ban the use of the term, and the registration of the trademark is likely to be held intact while the team appeals, so there will be little immediate impact on merchandise sales.

Bob Raskopf, a trademark attorney for the team, said: “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.

“We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”

But if the decision is upheld on appeal, a process that could take years, others will be free to use the name and the team logo on clothing and other gear, which could theoretically lead to more Redskins merchandise on the market, not less.

The Redskins could still try to defend their common law rights, which are based on use, not registration, to stop third parties from using it.

The decision Wednesday reignited a longstanding and bitter debate about the use of the name, which some Native American groups have said is derogatory. Mr. Snyder has said the name is a sign of respect, and he has pointed to several surveys that show a majority of Native Americans support the name. Mr. Goodell, who grew up a Redskins fan, has defended Mr. Snyder.

In a 2-1 decision, the board said that “the recognition that this racial designation based on skin color is disparaging to Native Americans” is demonstrated “by the near complete drop-off in usage of ‘‍redskins’ as a reference to Native Americans beginning in the 1960s.”

St. John’s University in New York, which said it had named its players after its red uniforms, in 1994 changed its name from the Redmen to the Red Storm. Miami University of Ohio in 1997 changed from Redskins to RedHawks.

In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association adopted a policy prohibiting the use of abusive American Indian imagery at its championship events.

Jim Rosini, a trademark lawyer with Kenyon & Kenyon in Washington, said the Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Braves probably wouldn’t lose their trademark protection as the Redskins did because “Chiefs,” “Indians,” and “Braves” are likely seen as more generic than offensive.

Wednesday’s decision on the Redskins came in a heavily footnoted 81-page opinion, accompanied by an 18-page dissent. It was similar to one issued in 1999 that was overturned four years later on appeal, largely because the courts decided that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their case.

The case was refiled in 2006 with a younger set of plaintiffs.

Amanda Blackhorse, one of five petitioners, said in a statement: “It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans. We filed our petition eight years ago and it has been a tough battle ever since.”

Senate Democrats who have urged the NFL to pressure the Redskins into changing the name celebrated the decision and said it was only a matter of time before Mr. Snyder would have to relent.

“The writing is on the wall, on the wall in giant, blinking neon lights,” said Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.).

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), the former chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, acknowledged the decision was not the final word, but she said she hoped it would spur a re-evaluation by the team.

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