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US Patent Office Revokes Redskins Trademark

This is the latest move in a battle that spans more than two decades between the Native American community and the DC-based football team.

by Mary Emily O'Hara
Jun 18 2014, 10:45pm

Image via Flickr

Today the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) issued a decision to revoke the patent of the Washington Redskins football team. The decision comes eight years after five young Native Americans filed a petition with the board alleging that the team’s name violates federal law.

The plaintiffs hailed from a diverse range of US states: Amanda Blackhorse (Arizona), Phillip Martin Gover (Utah), Courtney Tsotigh (Oklahoma), Marcus Briggs-Cloud (Florida), and Jillian Pappan (Nebraska).

Bob Raskope, the Redskins attorney, quickly issued a statement, saying he planned to appeal the decision and that he is “confident we will prevail once again” in the court battle likely to ensue.

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The board decision today is only the latest move in a battle spanning more than 20 years between the Native American community and the DC-based football team. In 1992, seven Native Americans filed a similar petition with the TTAB. Seven years and lots of litigation later, the board stripped the Redskins of their patents. But the team appealed in court and won.

In 2003, a US District Court ruled that the plaintiffs in the original patent case had failed to present sufficient evidence showing that the word “redskin” is a slur.

“The evidence in the current claim is virtually identical to the evidence a federal judge decided was insufficient more than ten years ago,” Raskope said in the statement.

When contacted, the National Football League told VICE News that they have no further statement on the matter.

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The TTAB decision again revokes all six of the team’s patents, including that of its cheerleaders, formerly called the Redskinettes. While the loss of trademark rights will not force the team to stop using the name, it will allow anyone to manufacture and sell memorabilia and clothing with the team’s name, potentially costing them a good chunk of the team’s $381 million in annual revenue.

Even so, DC trademark attorney Mark Sommers today told Forbes that the Redskins “didn’t surrender their common-law trademark rights.” Because the team has used the name since 1933, they could make a strong case to sue anyone who sees this as their chance to start marketing, say, Redskinette cheerleading miniskirts.

US trademark law says no trademark can be issued if it consists of “immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter,” or if it “may disparage” persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.

Around 600 patents for logos with Native American themes are registered to 450 different companies ranging from tribes like the Great Seminole Nation of Oklahoma to private companies like Land O’ Lakes and sports teams like the Chicago Blackhawks. While many of the corporate logos that feature Native American imagery could easily be accused of cultural appropriation, even offensive Indian versions of the Jim Crow-era “Mammy” caricature, none of the others seem to incorporate outright racial slurs.

The TTAB decides whether a word fits the “disparaging” category based on testimony from the community directly affected. All five plaintiffs gave testimony explaining the word is offensive, and Pappan stated that “redskin” is analogous to the word “nigger,” and told the board that people should not profit from “dehumanizing Native Americans.”

The board’s decision referenced a related 2008 case in which Heeb magazine was denied a trademark because many in the Jewish community testified that it was a derogatory word, despite the fact that Heeb was a magazine by and for Jewish hipsters attempting to sardonically reclaim the slur through parody.

Applying the same regulations, the board found that the term Redskins has no other meaning, neither proud reclamation nor tongue in cheek reference, than that of a racial slur.

Although the team plans to challenge today’s decision, increasing political opposition may hamper their case this time around. This May, fifty US Senators signed letters addressed to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, pressuring him to endorse a name change.

“I know not everybody in America can understand why this is important.”

On May 22, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell took the Senate floor to persuade her colleagues to write similar letters.

“I know not everybody in America can understand why this is important,” explained Cantwell, going on to say that this “may not even be the top issue in Indian Country.”

Cantwell named some of the organizations that backed the name change, from the NAACP to the Anti-Defamation League and even President Obama.

Obama said in a October 2013 interview, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team even if it had a storied history that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it."

“Yet this issue is a reminder to all of us that intolerance in our communities is a problem,” Cantwell said. “We’re here to say that we respect these tribal entities that have requested this name change.”

Image via Flickr

Follow Mary Emily O'Hara on Twitter: @MaryEmilyOHara