The overwhelming public reaction to the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s June 18 decision canceling six REDSKINS trademark registrations on grounds that the mark disparaged Native Americans has been impressive. However, news articles, op-ed pieces, informal commentary, and anecdotal stories all evidence wide range confusion about and a misunderstanding of the meaning and impact of the decision. This is an effort to set the record straight on the legal effect of this decision.
- The Washington Redskins still own valid and enforceable federal trademark rights in the REDSKINS marks. The federal registrations will not be formally canceled until all appeals have been exhausted, which will take years given the fact that the Redskins have indicated an intent to appeal the decision.
- Unlike most other countries in the world, US trademark law recognizes fully valid and enforceable trademark rights at common-law in trademarks that are being used but which are not registered. Thus, even if the registrations are eventually canceled, the Redskins will continue to own common-law rights in the trademarks which can be fully enforced in state and federal courts against third-party infringers.
- While the trademarks are still registered, the federal trademark registration notice ® may be used in connection with the REDSKINS marks. If these registrations are eventually canceled at the end of the legal process, the team can continue to use the REDSKINS marks and can use the unregistered trademark notice ™ with the marks.
- Anyone who thinks the Washington REDSKINS trademark is now up for grabs and can be used without incident is sorely mistaken, and anyone who has already begun to make unauthorized use of any of the REDSKINS marks is just asking for trouble. Should it choose to do so, the Redskins can still bring suit for infringement throughout the country.
- This decision is not based on a new law or any new Federal Government action, power, position, or initiative. The Section of the Trademark Act upon which the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board based its decision has been in existence and has been applied since 1946. The US Trademark Office, the Board, and courts around the country have regularly and for years refused to register trademarks and have canceled existing trademark registrations which were determined to be immoral, deceptive, scandalous, disparaging, or which brought persons, living or dead, into contempt or disrepute. The list of such marks is quite lengthy.
- Moreover, this is not a new case. These disparagement claims have been around for decades. This the second time that the Board has canceled these REDSKINS registrations on grounds of being disparaging to Native Americans. The first case, which was initially brought in 1992 and which was not litigated to a conclusion until 2010, was finally dismissed on grounds that had nothing to do with the disparagement issue. Rather, the case was dismissed on grounds of laches, which means that the specific Native Americans who filed the first case waited too long to do so and that delay prevented the case from moving forward.
- Until the registrations are formally canceled, which will be years from now if appeals are pursued, the REDSKINS trademark registrations will continue to be recorded with US Customs. This means that any unauthorized merchandise bearing a REDSKINS trademark which attempts to enter the country is still subject to seizure at the border by US Customs.
So, the Washington Redskins’ trademark rights are not dead and the REDSKINS trademark saga is far from over. Stay tuned.