Why Did the Redskins Lose Their Copyright?



Burgers are being grilled, bets are being places, trash is being talked, and jerseys are being donned. Football season is in full swing. You might not think football and intellectual property have much to do with each other, but in 2014 the United States Patent and Trademark Office made huge decision that rocked the football world harder than a hit from JJ Watt.

In a landmark case, the USPTO cancelled the Washington Redskins’ trademark protection because the team’s logo and name were considered “disparaging to Native Americans.” The case was the climax of mounting pressure from several Native American groups to make the Redskins change their team name and branding.

Five Native Americans, representing four tribes, originally brought the case against the league in 2006. Finally in 2014 a 2-1 ruling of an independent tribunal known as the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board was issued.

What Happens When Your Trademark is Canceled?

The cancellation of the Redskins’ trademark doesn’t mean they have to change their name, logo, or anything at all. It simply means they have no protection or ownership of their branding. The largest implication being that they can not stop anyone from selling merchandise with Redskin branding, which will undoubtedly decrease revenue.

Trademark Lesson

After the ruling was handed down, trademark lawyers for the Redskins filed appeals and a Supreme Court hearing was even requested. However, the important IP lesson to learn from this case is that you can’t trademark anything that is offensive. Defining exactly what the USPTO considers to be offensive isn’t easy to do. US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously stated he can’t define obscenity, “but I know it when I see it.” This is somewhat of the stance the USPTO takes as well.

This is just one great example of the complexities that go into a trademark application. If you need help filing for trademark protection call the Arizona trademark attorneys at Parsons & Goltry.


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