Trademark decision increases pressure on Redskins

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What’s in a name? If you point Shakespeare’s question to the Washington Redskins, the answer is: a great deal of controversy. In June, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) decided to cancel six of the team’s federal registrations for trademarks that include the term “Redskins,” saying the name is offensive.

What does that mean for the Redskins brand? “This doesn’t mean that the Redskins can’t call themselves the Redskins anymore,” says Mark Schultz, senior scholar at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property at George Mason University School of Law. “It doesn’t mean that other people can use the Redskins trademark on competing merchandise and sports services. The Redskins still have other federal and state trademark remedies. They can even use copyright to protect their logos.”

The greater story is the symbolic message the decision  conveys, he adds. “The fact that the government decided to take away the trademark sends a message of disapproval and increases pressure.” 

In recent decades, several colleges have changed the names of their sports teams to avoid offending American Indians. Players at Miami University in Ohio, for example, now are known as the RedHawks instead of the Redskins. Marquette University teams, once known as the Warriors, are now the Golden Eagles.

“The term Redskins can easily be interpreted as derogatory,” says James Rubin, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “It’s one of those words that has a negative connotation.”

Rubin points to an op-ed piece in the New York Times in late June written by Michael Lewis and Manish Tripathi, professors at Goizueta Business School at Emory University. They analyzed the impact of changing team names and mascots and found an “insignificant effect on revenue in the year immediately following a name change and a positive revenue trend in the subsequent years,” pointing out that there can be benefits to dropping a derogatory American Indian name. 

“When an organization’s name might cause offense, the organization should engage in a dialogue with stakeholders or affected groups — as suggested in the New York Times editorial — and not dismiss criticism, which could help them understand changing contexts,” Rubin says.

This isn’t the first time that Pro-Football Inc., which owns the Redskins, has had to deal with a TTAB decision canceling trademarks. In 1992 an Indian activist petitioned the board seeking the cancellation of several trademarks owned by Pro-Football. The trademarks were canceled by the TTAB in 1999, but a federal district court reversed the decision in 2003.

“Much of the evidence considered in the first proceeding was cited in the second,” says Christopher Seaman, an assistant professor of law at Washington and Lee University. “In legal terms, the impact will be limited. This is yet another source of applying some degree of pressure to change the name. I don’t think we will see any immediate change.”

By no means is this debate about the trademark over “if the Redskins don’t want it to be over,” says Schultz. “But this changes the game in terms of social pressure and perception of the trademark.”

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