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Appeals Court Sides With Team In Suit Challenging Trademark

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009

A federal appeals court yesterday handed the Washington Redskins another victory in their long-running legal dispute with Native American activists over the team's name.

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The appeals court did not address whether the name was offensive but upheld a federal judge's ruling last year that a Native American man had waited too long to challenge six Redskins trademarks.

An attorney for the activists, Philip J. Mause, said he was reviewing the opinion and had not decided whether to appeal.

His clients "are very frustrated that it has taken so long to get the legal system to come to grips with this and to come up with a definitive resolution," he said.

Attorneys for the National Football League franchise say the name is a sign of honor but are also fighting to protect millions of dollars' worth of sales of Redskins merchandise. If the team had lost in court, it could have continued to use the name on Redskins paraphernalia but would have faced a tougher time preventing merchants from infringing on its trademarks.

The dispute started in 1992, when seven Native American activists challenged the trademarks in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In 1999, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board sided with the activists, ruling that the team had no right to trademark the name. Pro-Football Inc., the team's corporate owner, appealed to federal court.

In 2003, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly sided with the team, ruling that the activists had not produced enough evidence to show the name was so insulting that it could not be protected by a trademark. The judge also found that the activists had waited too long to file their challenge. An appeals court in 2005 asked the judge to revisit the delay issue because one activist, Mateo Romero, might have legal standing. He was born in 1966.

Kollar-Kotelly ruled in July that Romero was well aware of the Redskins name before he turned 18, eight years before he filed the complaint with the other activists.

The judge found that the delay unfairly penalized the Redskins, who invested millions of dollars marketing the team during that eight-year span.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit yesterday upheld Kollar-Kotelly's decision.

"Eight years is a long time -- a delay made only more unreasonable by Romero's acknowledged exposure to various Redskins trademarks well before reaching" 18, wrote Judge David S. Tatel, who was joined in the 10-page opinion by Chief Judge David B. Sentelle and Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson.

"We thus think it neither a stretch of the imagination nor an abuse of discretion to conclude that Pro-Football might have invested differently in its branding of the Redskins and related entities had Romero acted earlier to place the trademark in doubt," Tatel wrote.

Robert Raskopf, an attorney for the team, said the decision "was a great win. It's wonderful for the fans of the club, the team and Dan Snyder," its owner.

Suzan Shown Harjo, one of the activists, said a group of younger Native Americans was ready to challenge the trademarks if any appeals are unsuccessful.

Harjo is president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Indian rights organization.

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