The Washington Redskins is one of the most popular teams in the National Football League and, according to Forbes, it has also been deemed one of the most valuable. Despite its popularity, the calls for the team to change its name and logo continue to grow. Many groups believe the name and logo to be offensive and disparaging to Native Americans. It seems the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) agrees. In June 2014, the TTAB released a decision cancelling the trademark registrations owned by the Washington Redskins football team on those very grounds.
Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act prohibits the registration of a mark that comprises immoral or scandalous matter, or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or bring them into contempt or disrepute.
How do you know whether your trademark meets this subjective standard? Most courts utilize the following two-prong test to weigh whether a trademark is disparaging:
- What is the meaning of the matter in question, taking into account dictionary definitions as well as the relationship of the matter to the other elements in the mark, the nature of the goods or services, and the manner in which the mark is used in the marketplace in connection with the goods and/or services, and
- If the meaning is found to refer to identifiable persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, whether that meaning may be disparaging to a substantial composite of the referenced group.
In its decision to cancel the Redskins’ trademark registrations, the TTAB found the evidence to show that approximately 30% of Native Americans considers the team name disparaging. The Board found 30% enough to qualify as a substantial composite of the referenced group, and the Washington Redskins’ trademark registrations were cancelled.
The Washington Redskins is appealing the ruling, arguing that it did not adopt the name with the intent to disparage Native Americans. You can view a copy of the appeal here. The Redskins’ trademark registrations will remain in effect during the appeals process, and even if the trademark cancellation is ultimately upheld, it does not mean that the team would have to change its name or stop selling merchandise bearing the REDSKINS mark.
If you have questions regarding trademark registration or a trademark cancellation, please do not hesitate to contact me for assistance. I may be reached at (314) 749-4059 or firstname.lastname@example.org.