The U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeals Board made a dent in the Washington Redskins’ brand, but the football team will still be allowed to use the racially-charged name for at least some time.
The board cancelled six of the National Football Team’s trademarks because they are “disparaging to Native Americans” on Monday. While the decision has been called “landmark,” the board only ended the trademarks relating to live games and broadcasts, and the “Redskinettes” name. Several trademarks owned by Pro Football, Inc. protecting the Native American profile design seen on helmets and merchandise still stands, however.
“Those were the only trademarks challenged,” said Kevin Hartley, trademark attorney and blogger for Trademarklology. “I think the damage to the brand has already been done. Most people have a strong opinion one way or another about if they team should or should not change their name.”
The cancellation comes a year after Native American petitioners testified before the board that the team’s name is offensive, on par with the n-word and that the team should not be profiting off of dehumanizing their culture. While the team will still be able to use the name, logo and market merchandise, it loses some key federal protections.
“They do lose the benefits of a federal registration, which does include presumption of ownership, a nationwide scope right to trademark, the ability to use the federal registration symbol and the ability to record registrations with US Border Patrol and Customs to block imports of infringing or counterfeit foreign goods,” explained Hartley.
According to Forbes, Washington’s team was valued at $1,700,000,000 in 2013. While the loss of federal protection will cut into their revenue, it could take months before the team experiences any direct negative monetary impact.
“One thing to keep in mind is that the cancellation won’t go into effect until all judicial review is done, and the patent owner in this case will have the opportunity to appeal this decision of the trademark trial and appeals board to federal court,” said Hartley. “Because of the importance of this decision and the national attention, it is one that they would move forward on more quickly than another. There really is no telling [how long an appeal will take], but at a minimum months. ”
Pro Football, Inc. will likely appeal the decision since the team’s ownership has been standing by the name despite years of controversy. The team already has one court win on their side. The USPTO cancelled their trademarks in 1999, but the decision was overturned because of insufficient evidence.
With mounting pressure from the public, the cancellation was inevitable. Both Democratic and Republican politicians have publicly denounced the name, schools are running away from the Redskins mascot and various news outlets have stopped referencing the name in sports coverage. The trademark office has also been cracking down on other insensitive names – like Redskin Hog Rinds and The Slants. But it is important to note that the trademark board does not have the authority to force the team to change their name, and even if they cancelled all of the Redskins trademarks, the team retains common law authority.
The greatest force could come from the league itself because of merchandise revenue sharing. Washington’s merchandise trademarks still stand, but a major loss in jersey sales will make the NFL think twice about allowing the Redskin name to stand when it hurts their bottom line.
Until then, the trademark decision is another dose of positive pressure against the team.
“Things still have a ways to go. I do think – if nothing else – that this should fast track any decisions by the team to rebrand or rename the team. I think that we’ll probably see that before too long,” said Hartley.