Federal Trademark Office Cancels Washington Redskins' Patent for Being 'Disparaging to Native Americans'

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes against the Washington Redskins during the first half of their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland, October 7, 2012.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes against the Washington Redskins during the first half of their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland, October 7, 2012. | (Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The federal agency on trademarks and patents ruled Wednesday to cancel the trademark name of the Washington Redskins NFL team, saying their moniker is "disparaging to Native Americans."

Judges with the federal U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled 2-1 Wednesday to cancel the team's trademark registrations, saying in the ruling: "Petitioners have found a preponderance of evidence that a substantial amount of Native Americans found the term Redskins to be disparaging when used in connection with professional football."

"While this may reveal differing opinions with the community, it does not negate the opinions of those who find it disparaging."

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The one dissenting judge, Marc Bergsman, wrote in his opinion that he believes the petitioners in the case failed to provide enough evidence as to why the team name was disparaging.

The federal agency does not grant trademarks to names that may prove disparaging to an individual or groups, or "bring them into contempt or disrepute."

This most recent lawsuit against the Washington Redskins NFL team was brought on eight years ago by five members of multiple Native American tribes. Jesse Witten, the lead attorney of Drinker Biddle & Reath, the law firm representing the petitioners, said in a statement to The Washington Post that Wednesday's victory was "a long time coming and reflects the hard work of many attorneys at our firm."

Although the ruling does not force the Washington Redskins to change their name, it does make it more difficult for the team to protect their name from being used by other agencies without receiving some form of payment. As Frank Vuono, the NFL's former vice president of retail licensing, told the Wall Street Journal, the ruling could cause the Redskins to lose millions of dollars off royalties for merchandise.

"The companies that are contracted to the league or the team, they won't stop paying royalties, but if I'm a bank or I'm an auto company and I want to promote using the Redskins, technically I could without paying anything," Vuono told the media outlet.

The NFL team is likely to appeal Wednesday's ruling, as a different judge made a similar ruling back in 1999, only to have the ruling overturned in federal court in 2009.

Bob Raskopf, the trademark attorney for the NFL team, said in a statement to ESPN that he is confident the Redskins will once again regain their patent when they appeal the ruling in federal court. Raskopf added that the trademark registrations will remain effective as the appeal moves forward.

"We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board's divided ruling will be overturned on appeal. This case is no different than an earlier case, where the Board cancelled the Redskins' trademark registrations, and where a federal district court disagreed and reversed the Board."

In the past few months, the Washington Redskins have been receiving mounting pressure from politicians, Native American tribes, and the left-leaning United Church of Christ to change their name. Just this week, members of the United Church of Christ's Central Atlantic region voted at its annual conference to boycott the Redskins team, vowing to not attend their games or purchase their merchandise.

"I hope this debate will continue to draw attention to an unhealed wound in our cultural fabric," John Deckenback, minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, said in a statement. "Changing the name of the Washington NFL team will not solve the problems of our country's many trails of broken promises and discriminatory isolation of our Native American communities. However, a change in the nation's capital can send a strong message."

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