Judge Tells Patent Office to Yank Redskins Trademarks

Banzhaf says FCC can force use of name off airwaves

A U.S. District judge has ordered the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to cancel six federal registrations for Redskins trademarks, upholding the USPTO's decision in June 2014 that the NFL's Washington “Redskins” may be disparaging to Native Americans.

That won't mean the name will be stricken from the team or the airwaves or merchandise.

Granting motions for summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee made it clear, as USPTO had before him, that the team's owner is not precluded from using the name and trademarks. Summary judgment bypasses a trial and goes straight to a decision.

"I am surprised by the judge's decision to prevent us from presenting our evidence in an open trial," said team president Bruce Allen. "We look forward to winning on appeal after a fair and impartial review of the case. We are convinced that we will win because the facts and the law are on the side of our franchise that has proudly used the name Redskins for more than 80 years."

The court, "the Redskins Marks consisted of matter that 'may disparage' a substantial composite of Native Americans during the relevant time period, 1967-1990, and must be cancelled" and that those marks "consisted of matter that bring Native Americans into 'contempt or disrepute.'"

The decision does not mean that the football team has to change its name or stop using the trademarks at issue. But it does mean that it loses the legal presumption of ownership, the ability to use the registration symbol, or to be able to get the Customs and Border Patrol service to block importation of counterfeit goods into the country.

Cancelling the registration does not mean it can't be used, only that it loses government protection. The trademark owner may also still retain "use" rights under common law.

"This means that, although the team may continue to use the name and associated trademarks, it will be much harder for it to stop others from also using it, and thereby cutting into the team's revenue," said public interest law professor John Banzhaf. Banzhaf has pushed for the name change, including challenging the broadcast licenses of stations using name of the Washington football team on air, a challenge the FCC rejected.

On Wednesday, Banzhaf said that he still thinks the FCC has the authority to force broadcasters to stop using the name on air.