The United States government said the word “redskin” is derogatory this week. But that doesn’t mean the Washington Redskins have to worry about Uncle Sam tearing down their name from FedExField.
The latest development in the years-long war over whether the capital’s football team sports an offensive name came Monday, when the U.S. Patent Office rejected the trademark of Washington Redskin Potatoes, partly because of the inclusion of the term “redskin.” The patent office made a similar move against a pork rinds distributor late last year, and Monday’s judgement gave hope to Native American groups who have long railed against Redskins owner Dan Snyder and his team’s name.
“It is heartening to see this latest step in the right direction,” Oneida Indian Nation spokesman Ray Halbritter said in a statement. “We hope that the Washington NFL team will heed the clear calls for change and place itself on the right side of history by changing the team’s disparaging name.”
They shouldn’t hold their breath. Snyder has long refused to budge on the issue, and legal experts said the rejection of the two trademark applications won’t have a major impact on an ongoing fight over the team name.
“The crux of the [issue] is whether the term ‘redskin’ was disparaging in the ’60s and ’70s when the team acquired most of these registrations,” New York copyright attorney Kristen McCallion said. “One’s current views of the mark, whether it’s disparaging or not, are largely irrelevant with respect solely to [the current fight].”
While the Oneida Indian Nation has waged a public relations battle against Snyder and the NFL in recent months, another group has revisited a decades-old legal dispute against the team. In 1999, the Patent Office’s Trademark Appeal Board revoked the Washington Redskins’ registration for being disparaging, but a federal court reversed that decision in 2003, saying the plaintiffs failed to provide adequate proof of disparagement. In 2012 a group of five Native Americans filed a petition to the trademark appeal board to have the team’s trademarks cancelled for using a disparaging term. That petition is currently pending.
Even if they prevail, McCallion said, revoking the team’s trademark registration wouldn’t have a huge impact on the team or the name. The team could still sell merchandise and use the name, although some of the legal protection afforded by a registered trademark would be lost.
“If they lost federal registration that would hurt their branding,” said Patricia Rehfield, a Maryland-based copyright attorney.
Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie said in a statement that “no matter what the ruling is this year, we expect no change that will impact the Redskins.”
“Even a negative ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s use of the Redskins name and logo,” he said. “That’s how the process works given our right to appeal.”