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“REDSKINS” US Trademark Registrations are Canceled for Disparaging Native Americans

A three-judge panel of the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), for the second time and in a 2-1 decision, has held that the REDSKINS trademark used in connection with professional football and related services by the Washington Redskins National Football League team was disparaging to a substantial composite of Native Americans between 1967-1990, the time during which the registrations issued. It also held that the defense of laches did not apply to a disparagement claim where the disparagement pertains to a group of which the individual plaintiff or plaintiffs comprise one or more members. Accordingly, it ordered the registrations at issue canceled as violations of Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act. The cancellation of the registrations has no effect on the team’s ability to continue to use the REDSKINS marks.

Efforts to cancel the REDSKINS registrations have been ongoing for many years. The first petition to cancel the registrations was filed in 1992 and, after seven years of litigation, the TTAB canceled the registrations on grounds that the marks were disparaging to Native Americans. After several rounds of appeals and remands through the DC federal courts, the case was dismissed on grounds of laches.

While the above proceedings were still pending, six new individual petitioners, all Native Americans, initiated the current case seeking to cancel the same REDSKINS registrations. The matter was suspended pending a final decision in the above proceedings, and resumed in March 2010. After four more years of litigation, the TTAB again cancelled the registrations for disparaging Native Americans.

The Trademark Act prohibits registration of a trademark which may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute. A two-pronged test was used by the TTAB to decide the issue of disparagement as follows:

  1. What is the meaning of the matter in question, as it appears in the marks and as those marks are used in connection with the goods and services identified in the registrations?
  2. Is the meaning of the marks one that may disparage Native Americans?

Both questions are required to be answered as of the various dates of registration of the marks involved, which was between 1967 and 1990, considering the views during that time of a substantial composite of Native Americans, not the American public as a whole. The questions are not to be determined based on current views on the subject.

The TTAB found that the first prong was satisfied by evidence that the term REDSKINS when used by the Washington Redskins football team retained its Native American meaning and imagery inherent in the original definition of the word. It stated that the football team “has made continuous efforts to associate its football services with Native American imagery.”

The second prong of the test required a determination of whether the use of the word was disparaging within the context of its use. “Context of use” can consist of several types:

  1. One which turns an innocuous term into a disparaging one;
  2. One which strips the disparaging meaning from the disparaging term; and
  3. One which has no effect on the disparaging meaning.

The TTAB held that as used by the football team, the word “Redskins” retained its original meaning and the context of the use had no effect on the disparaging nature of the word. It noted that the team’s “alleged honorable intent and manner of use of the term” did not change this finding.

In reaching its decision to cancel the registrations, the TTAB considered expert reports and testimony, dictionary definitions, and reference books. In considering the specific views of Native Americans, it considered the National Congress of American Indians’ (NCAI) 1993 Resolution 93-11, deposition testimony of several Native Americans, and various newspaper articles, reports, official records, and letters of protest filed at the Trademark Office. It concluded that the NCAI Resolution represented the views of a substantial composite of Native Americans who believed the term was disparaging, that the trend in dictionary usage labels corroborated the time frame of objections from Native Americans starting in the late 60s and continuing through the 90s as lexicographers began and finally uniformly labeled the term as “offensive” or  “disparaging,” and that, at a minimum, approximately 30% of Native Americans found the term used in connection with football services to be disparaging at all the times at issue.

In rejecting the laches defense, the TTAB stated that it was difficult “to justify a balancing of equities where a registrant’s financial interest is weighed against human dignity.”  Moreover, both it and the courts have routinely held that when a broader public policy concern is at issue, the laches defense does not apply.

The dissenting judge disagreed with the majority’s decision on the claim of disparagement arguing that the dictionary evidence relied upon was inconclusive and there was no reliable evidence to corroborate the membership of the National Counsel of American Indians. However, he stated that he wanted to make clear that the case was “not about the controversy, currently playing out in the media, over whether the term “redskins,” as the name of Washington’s professional football team, is disparaging to Native Americans today.” He disagreed with the majority that the evidence of record proved that the term was disparaging “at the time each of the challenge registrations issued.”

According to the Washington Post, the Redskins plan to appeal the decision and the team has no plans to discontinue use of the REDSKINS mark. Unlike the last proceeding, any appeal of this decision will not go to the DC federal courts but must now go to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia or the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This change was implemented in the America Invents Act which was enacted in September 2011 and it is not clear how a different court will decide these issues. The cancellation of the registrations will be stayed pending any appeal.

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Susan Neuberger Weller manages the Trademark & Copyright Practice at Mintz. Susan assists clients with securing and protecting IP assets across the globe. She's worked with clients in a variety of industries, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices, software, electronics, and entertainment.