A group of Native Americans is asking the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, a little-known entity within the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, to strike down several Redskins registered trademarks — including the Redskinettes, the football team’s cheerleaders, as well as images of a Native American man used on the team’s helmets. The case, Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc., and the larger questions surrounding the team’s name and whether it is offensive to Native Americans, is a contentious debate. The trademark case is a relatively minor part of the controversy — it is largely symbolic and would have little impact on the Redskins financially, even if the team loses. But it is unique, trademark experts say. Here are some frequently asked questions about the case and the trademark process.
1.What is the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, and who’s on it?
The board is the unit within the Patent and Trademark Office that hears cases when registered trademarks are challenged. The board’s 22 administrative law judges are career government employees with a background in trademark law, either as lawyers in private practice or as trademark-examining attorneys — the people who decide whether a trademark meets the requirements to be registered. The board rules in three-judge panels. This particular case will be decided by Peter Cataldo, Karen Kuhlke and Marc Bergsman.
2.What’s the significance of the decision?
The board can decide whether a trademark can be registered, but it does not have authority to force the team to stop using an unregistered trademark — so even if the board rules against the Redskins, the team could continue using them, and selling goods containing the Redskins images and logos in question. However, having an unregistered trademark could make it harder for the team to prevent trademark infringers from selling and importing knockoff paraphernalia.
3.Is there anything unique about this case from a legal point of view?
Yes. The petitioners are using a relatively uncommon legal argument — that the trademarks should be struck down because they are “scandalous” or “disparaging.” This argument is usually reserved for cases that involve race, religion or curse words, says Karol Kepchar, a trademark attorney at Akin Gump. It’s far more common to see trademark cases argue what’s called “likelihood of confusion” — whether the logo of one company looks too much like the logo of another, for example, leading the two companies to fight it out. One of the more interesting “disparaging” cases in recent years was in 2010, when the board rejected a trademark application for a wine called Khoran, finding it was disparaging to Muslim people because the Koran forbids the consumption of alcohol.
4. When will a decision be made?
There is no deadline for reaching a decision. Both sides presented their case during a hearing in March, and have been waiting ever since. Some trademark experts say they don’t expect a decision until well into 2014.
5.Will the great public interest, headlines, etc. impact the decision?
It shouldn’t, at least not legally. That’s because the board is only supposed to consider evidence about whether the trademark was disparaging at the time the registrations were issued — in this case, that dates back to the 1960s — and not whether they are considered disparaging today.