On June 18, 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted a petition for cancellation of six “REDSKINS” trademark registrations owned by the Washington Redskins NFL team. The registrations were issued between 1967 and 1990. In a 2-to-1 divided decision, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board concluded that the trademarks were disparaging to a substantial portion of the Native American population.
The team has the option to appeal to a federal district court or the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The selected court will essentially determine whether the Marks were disparaging to Native Americans at the time they were registered. An appeal will stay cancellation of the trademarks and allow the team to retain federal trademark registration until after the appeal is completed.
The team’s trademark registrations enhanced its ability to stop counterfeit and other unauthorized uses of the trademarks, such as sales of apparel and other merchandise. However, contrary to popular belief, the decision does not eliminate all protection for the team’s trademarks. The team can continue to enforce its common law trademark rights and its rights under federal unfair competition law. Ultimately, if the cancellation of the trademarks is upheld and the team continues to use the them, the scope of the rights afforded to the marks will be determined through costly litigation.
Nonetheless, while the team will retain rights, the decision increases the pressure on team ownership and the NFL to compel a change to the Redskins name. It may also raise an additional concern for applicants seeking registration of their marks and cause them to think twice before applying to register a potentially disparaging or defamatory mark.