The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has cancelled six Washington Redskins trademarks, ruling that the polarizing moniker is "disparaging to Native Americans."
While the decision does not require the Redskins to change their name, it could intensify the ever-increasing pressure on the team to do so.
The ruling means the Redskins would lose several legal benefits associated with the trademarks (including the use of the ® symbol) and the ability to register with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to ensure that counterfeit foreign goods are not imported.
Federal trademark law does not allow the registration of trademarks that are considered disparaging to individuals or groups.
"We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered," the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board wrote in its opinion.
The Redskins, however, will be able to appeal to a federal court to have the ruling reversed.
Five Native Americans filed to have the trademarks cancelled in 2006 and the case was heard by the board in March 2013.
"The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with our clients that the team's name and trademarks disparage Native Americans," said Jesse Witten, the lead partner of Drinker Biddle & Reath, the law firm litigating the case. "The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place."
Redskins owner Dan Snyder has vowed that he will never change the team's name. "NEVER -- you can use caps," he told USA Today last year.
When approached by reporters during Washington's minicamp practice Wednesday, Snyder declined to comment.
"This ruling -- which of course we will appeal -- simply addresses the team's federal trademark registrations, and the team will continue to own and be able to protect its marks without the registrations," Redskins trademark attorney Bob Raskopf said in a statement. "The registrations will remain effective while the case is on appeal."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a vocal critic of the team's name, took the Senate floor shortly after the patent office's cancellation was announced, applauding the decision.
"Daniel Snyder may be the last person in the world to realize this," Reid said, "but it's just a matter of time until he is forced to do the right thing and change the name."
This is the second time the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has been presented with a petition to cancel these trademarks. That case took 17 years to go through the legal system before the Supreme Court declined to intervene.
In 1992, Suzan Harjo and six other Native Americans brought a case against Pro Football, Inc., the corporate entity that owns the Redskins, and in 1999, the board ruled to cancel the registrations.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia reversed that ruling in 2003 due to a technicality, Whitten explained. Under the doctrine of laches, the court found that Harjo and her fellow petitioners waited too long after turning 18 to file their complaint.
The petitioners appealed, and ultimately, in 2009, the D.C. Circuit Court affirmed the decision of the lower court.
“We’ve seen this story before," Raskopf said. "And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo.
"We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal."
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