WASHINGTON - The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled six trademark registrations owned by the Washington NFL club today, ruling that the term "Redskins" was disparaging to "a substantial composite" of American Indians when the marks were granted between 1967 and 1990.
The Washington team can appeal and retain its federal trademark rights in the meantime. And even if the club loses on appeal, it can continue to use the name, as it has for more than 80 years. But without trademark protection, others could potentially use the team's name and logos to sell merchandise with impunity, although owners of unregistered marks can still try to protect them through state statutes or common law.
The TTAB, an independent administrative tribunal within the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, ruled that by a preponderance of the evidence petitioners had proved the term was disparaging to Native Americans when the six marks were registered between 1967 and 1990.
When Washington team owner Daniel Snyder told USA TODAY Sports in May 2013 that he would never change his team's name — "NEVER, you can use caps" — the specific question he was answering was whether he would consider changing the name should his team lose its trademark protection.
Pressure to change the name has only intensified since. The Oneida Indian Nation launched a well-financed "Change the Mascot" campaign a month after Snyder's all-caps comment. Critics who've suggested Snyder should at least consider a name change have ranged from President Obama to several of the team's former players. Today's ruling will amp up that pressure, even if from a legal standpoint little changes pending appeal.
Suzan Shown Harjo was lead petitioner in the original trademark case, which began in 1992. The TTAB canceled the team's trademarks in 1999, just as it did today, but the team won Harjo v. Pro Football Inc. on appeal in 2003 in part because the district court ruled that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their suit.
Harjo organized a second suit, with younger plaintiffs, including lead petitioner Amanda Blackhorse, in 2006. The original case did not end until the Supreme Court declined to hear it in 2009. Blackhorse v. Pro Football Inc. went active at that point and a 90-minute hearing was heard before the trademark board on March 7, 2013. The board took more than a year to come to today's ruling.