The Redskins Have Been Stripped of Their Trademarks [Updated]

Team will appeal its right to seize your homemade jerseys

Update: That's it for the name "Washington Redskins," at least as far as legally protected trademark status goes. The appeals board at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has stripped the NFL team of six trademarks. So if you make a living printing and selling your own Redskins hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts and giant foam fingers, today is your lucky day.

But keep them in a warehouse for a couple of years—the Redskins announced this afternoon that they would appeal the decision, pointing out that a similar decision in 1999 had been overturned four years later by judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly who "concluded that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s board had relied upon partial, dated and irrelevant evidence submitted by the activists," the Washington Post reported at the time.

"The evidence in the current claim is virtually identical to the evidence a federal judge decided was insufficient more than ten years ago," said Bob Raskopf, the team's trademark attorney. "We expect the same ultimate outcome here.” 

The decision today (and the original '99 decision) hinged on a particular stipulation of U.S. trademark law that is quite clear on the use of slurs in trademarks: You can't have 'em. Any word or phrase that "consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute" is disallowed.

Given that "redskin" has been identified by dictionaries as a slur dating back at least to the turn of the 20th century, the ruling seems to be on solid ground, but given also that the evidence in the case is indeed similar to the evidence presented in 1999, the appeals process may well go the same way. One major difference in the proceedings at the moment is that the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the appellate case in 2003, is composed very differently;  it has, however, ruled conservatively on issues of race in the recent past and may do so again.

It's important to note what the ruling does and doesn't mean, as outlined by the Patent and Trademark Office itself. It doesn't mean that the Redskins are required to change their name. It does mean, however, that foreign goods with the team's logo (which is a big enough business that customs officials seized an estimated $21.6 million in fake jerseys and helmets in a single pre-Super Bowl bust this January) are now completely fair game for anybody who wants to make them. The Patent and Trademark Office is pretty clear about this: The 'Skins lose "the ability to record the registrations with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Service so as to block the importation of infringing or counterfeit foreign goods." Congratulations to the children and political prisoners who work so hard to bring American sports fans these goods.

And yes, the cancelation of the marks includes not only the name, but also the logo of a stereotypical Native American with exaggerated facial features in a feathery headdress, and the stylized version of the name (all marked). You can examine the ruling in detail here.

This, obviously, would be a serious blow to the team's bottom line if the decision survives on appeal—Forbes estimates that the Redskins brand is worth $145 million at the time of this writing; expect that valuation to drop a bit if the case against the team holds.

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