Native American groups won another chance yesterday to challenge trademarks covering the name and logo of the Washington Redskins, which the groups say disparage millions of people.
The football franchise had appeared to prevail in the longstanding trademark fight when a federal judge ruled in its favor nearly two years ago. But yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals said the case deserves another look because one of the plaintiffs might have been unfairly denied the right to pursue it.
"This keeps the case alive," said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, which represents 250 tribes.
The dispute involves six trademarks owned by Pro-Football Inc., the corporate owner of the team. The oldest is "The Redskins," written in a stylized script in 1967. Other trademarks were registered in 1974, 1978 and 1990, including one for the word "Redskinettes." The Native Americans said the trademarks should be taken away because they insult them and hold them up to ridicule.
The appellate ruling hinged on the question of whether the Native Americans waited too long to file their challenge. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled in October 2003 that the seven plaintiffs had no standing to complain because they did not formally object until 25 years had elapsed since the date of the first trademark.
But the appellate judges found that one plaintiff still could have standing because he was only 1 year old in 1967. They sent the case back to Kollar-Kotelly for review.
The outcome ultimately could affect millions of dollars in sales of Redskins paraphernalia. With a federal registration for trademarks, team owner Daniel M. Snyder holds exclusive rights to use the team name and logo on T-shirts, caps and other items, worth an estimated $5 million a year.
Cancellation of the trademarks would not force the Redskins to stop selling those products, but it would limit the team's ability to take action against merchants who infringed on the trademark.
The Redskins have argued that the name, dating to 1933, is meant to honor Native Americans. Robert Raskopf, an attorney for Pro-Football Inc., said the organization disagrees with the appellate ruling and is considering its options for challenging it.
"We look forward to ultimately prevailing," he said. Asked whether the Redskins might consider changing the team's name, he replied, "Absolutely not."
The legal battle began 13 years ago when the Native Americans, led by Cheyenne activist and District resident Suzan Shown Harjo, filed a complaint with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The complaint cited a 1946 federal law that prohibits the government from registering a trademark that disparages any race, religion or group.
The agency's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board sided with Harjo in 1999 and canceled the highly lucrative trademarks. But Pro-Football Inc. challenged the board's decision with a lawsuit filed at the federal courthouse in Washington.
Kollar-Kotelly cited other factors in ruling in favor of the football franchise. She said the trademark board relied on dated, incomplete and irrelevant evidence. The appellate court did not address those issues yesterday, focusing only on the issue of timing -- a concept known as laches.
The appellate ruling instructed Kollar-Kotelly to reevaluate the claim of the youngest plaintiff in the case, Manteo Romero. It was issued by judges David B. Sentelle, A. Raymond Randolph and David S. Tatel.
"Why should laches bar all Native Americans from challenging Pro-Football's 'Redskins' trademark registrations because some Native Americans may have slept on their rights?" the judges asked.
Romero, 38, an artist who lives in Pojoaque Pueblo, N.M., near Santa Fe, called the ongoing legal battle "a moral issue. . . . The use of the mascot is damaging to Native American peoples, who need to be respected for who they are instead of being stereotyped," he said.