News & Politics

UPDATE: US Patent Office Cancels Redskins Trademarks

A federal panel’s ruling that the name is disparaging could cost the team a lot of money.

Free-for-all! Photograph by Flickr user Kevin Coles.

The US Patent and Trademark Office canceled six federal trademark registrations owned by the Washington NFL team on Wednesday morning, ruling that the franchise’s nickname is “disparaging to Native Americans.”

The decision is the culmination of a suit filed eight years ago by a group of Native American activists led by Amanda Blackhorse, a member of the Navajo nation. The judges on the USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board write that their verdict is not swayed by the continuing political and media criticism of the team but because its name, defined by most dictionaries as a racial slur, has been considered offensive for decades.

“The recognition that this racial designation based on skin color is disparaging to Native Americans is also demonstrated by the near complete drop-off in usage of ‘redskins’ as a reference to Native Americans beginning in the 1960s,” the judges write. “The record establishes that, at a minimum, approximately thirty percent of Native Americans found the term REDSKINS used in connection with respondent’s services to be disparaging at all times including 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978, and 1990.”

Losing a protected trademark could be a huge blow to the Washington team and the rest of the NFL, too. Thirty-one franchises, including Washington, split the revenue that comes in from the sales of licensed merchandise. As a whole, Washington’s team took in $381 million in 2013, according to Forbes.

“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,” Jesse Witten, a partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath who represented the activists who brought the case, says in a press release. “This victory was a long time coming and reflects the hard work of many attorneys at our firm.”

But don’t launch that side business selling homemade John Riggins T-shirts just yet. The team’s trademarks will remain intact while the trademark board’s ruling goes through judicial review, and the franchise can appeal the verdict. A similar ruling in 1999 was overturned in federal court because of a technicality, but the plaintiffs bringing this suit argued they corrected it.

UPDATE, 12:16 PM: In a legal move that will surprise no one, the Washington NFL team intends to appeal the trademark board’s ruling. “<span=>We’ve seen this story before,” the team’s lawyer, Bob Raskopf, says in a press release. “And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s <span=>ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo.”

The team will file its appeal in federal district court and hopes for a similar result as before. The trademark board’s 1999 invalidation of the team’s trademarks was overturned in 2003, with the trademark protection remaining intact during the four-year appeal. So no selling any knockoff Gus Frerotte bobblehead dolls right now.

“<span=>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,” Raskopf says. “The registrations will remain effective while the case is on appeal.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.