What Does Trademark Decision Actually Mean for Redskins Brand?

Others Could Start Selling Merchandise Without Fear of Reprisal

By Published on .

The controversial Washington Redskins brand inched a little closer to the ash heap.

Ruling the NFL team's "Redskins" nickname is "disparaging of Native Americans," the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office canceled the team's federal trademarks on Wednesday.

Native American groups have been running protest ad campaigns to pressure Redskins team owner Dan Snyder (the billionaire founder of Snyder Communications) to change the nickname. The most recent push came from the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, which ran a high-profile ad in major markets during the NBA Finals.

But Mr. Snyder has steadfastly refused, despite pressure from Congress, the media and Native-American groups. The Redskins said they'll appeal the decision in federal court.

It's a battle the team has previously won when it appealed a similar decision made in 1999. "We've seen this story before," said Washington Redskins Trademark Attorney Bob Raskopf in a statement. "And just like last time, today's ruling will have no effect at all on the team's ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo." The 1999 decision was overruled in 2009 by a federal court, which threw the case out on a technicality.

If the Redskins lose the appeal, the team, as well as other NFL clubs, could lose millions in royalty fees. At a practical level, anybody would be able to sell merchandise bearing the Redskins moniker without much fear of legal retribution for trademark infringement. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III led the league in jersey sales in 2012.

So what does Wednesday's decision by the federal agency's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to cancel half a dozen Redskins trademarks really mean? Some key questions:

Does this force the Redskins to change their brand/logo for the 2014 season?

Nope. The Redskins will try to overturn the decision in federal court. Until then, they still have rights to the name. Their trademarks will remain on the federal register. They won't be stamped "canceled" until the team's legal appeal is concluded.

That's good news for the Redskins -- and bad news for anybody who smells an opportunity to peddle knock-off gear starting tomorrow. If the Redskins win the case, the club can retroactively enforce the trademarks and take legal action for trademark infringement.

What if the Redskins lose the appeal and the USTPO cancellations are upheld?

That's when things could go south real fast for the Redskins, NFL and official outfitter Nike. Counterfeiters could start flooding the U.S. market with knock-off football jerseys under the Redskins moniker. The team wouldn't have many legal options to stop them.

The league would lose money too. That, finally, could be the development that finally spells the end for the Redskins name.

As ESPN noted Wednesday, the NFL splits merchandising royalties equally among 31 teams (the exception is Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys). Other NFL owners may not care if Mr. Snyder loses money. But if they start losing money too, they could pressure Mr. Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to dump the name.

So will we be seeing less of the Redskins name?

Maybe not. The ruling could actually result in more businesses and counterfeiters slapping it on jerseys, T-shirts, hats and other gear, warned ESPN analyst Roger Cossack.

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