Wednesday, June 18, 2014

US Patent & Trademark Office Cancels Washington Redskins Trademark

One of the most important aspects to any profitable business is a term lawyers refer to as "intellectual property."  Intellectual property includes things like patents which protect inventions, copyrights which protect creative works like songs or books, and of course trademarks which protect logos or the very name of a company itself.  For many years, the name and logo of the NFL team known as the Washington Redskins has been cited as being offensive to the Native American people to which it refers.  Indeed, the term "redskin" is considered by many Native Americans to be a racial slur carrying the same level of offensiveness and disrespect as other racial slurs directed towards other minorities.  Accordingly, several attempts have been made to change the name of this NFL team throughout the years but a recent ad campaign started by the National Change the Mascot Campaign seems to have had an impact with the United States Patent & Trademark Office:

Per Yahoo Finance:

The U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office cancelled the federal trademarks for the Washington Redskins after ruling that the name was "disparaging to Native Americans."
Five Native Americans petitioned the office to cancel six trademarks filed between 1967 and 1990. Under federal law, trademarks that "may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute" cannot be registered.
The office said in a ruling:
"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, in violation of Section 2(a)  of the Trademark Act of 1946, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a)."
Even if the ruling is upheld, the team can still call itself the Redskins. But without the trademarks, anyone can use the Redskins name to sell merchandise. It essentially puts financial pressure on owner Dan Snyder to change the name.
The entire ruling can be read here. It includes a lengthy discussion, with expert opinions from lexicographers, about the historical origins of the words and its use as an offensive term over the past century.
The key part of the ruling says that 30% of Native Americans find the name disparaging. The committee describes this as a "substantial composite" of Native Americans, which establishes that the name is offensive:
"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. Section 2(a) prohibits registration of matter that disparages a substantial composite, which need not be a majority, of the referenced group. Thirty percent is without doubt a substantial composite. To determine otherwise means it is acceptable to subject to disparagement 1 out of every 3 individuals, or as in this case approximately 626,095 out of 1,878,285 in 1990.
So what does this all mean?

It means that the team owner no longer has a trademark to the name "Washington Redskins" or "Redskins" or the Redskins logo on the helmet, which in turn means that they can no longer (A) collect royalties or (B) stop other people from using those names or the team logo for their own business use. In other words, they have a brand name and logo with zero legal protection. Companies (especially sports companies) make big bucks off of licensing their logos to video games, T-shirt designers, athletic wear companies, etc. If they can't stop others from using their logo then it creates a huge financial incentive to change the team name and logo to something that can be protected (ie. not the Washington Redskins).

In other words, the team owner can still continue to legally use the name "Washington Redskins," but it would not be profitable to do so.

What do you think?
Do you think the term "Redskins" is offensive to Native Americans?
Assuming it is offensive, should the team have to change its name after using it for so many years?
And for the 1st Amendment crowd, should a team owner be able to start an NFL team tomorrow called the "Nashville Niggers", "Wisconsin Wetbacks", or the "Kentucky Kikes" complete with  a stereotypical caricature for a team logo?
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