Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Washington Redskins could have filed its case with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The team could have filed its case with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This version has been corrected.
The Washington Redskins filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, seeking to overturn a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decision that canceled the team’s trademark registration because it considers the name and logo disparaging.
The Redskins are suing five Native Americans who won the headline-making patent case on June 18, providing them with a largely symbolic victory in their fight to force the team to change its name.
By suing in federal district court, the Redskins are asking for a chance to defend their name, which they contend celebrates Native Americans.
“We believe that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ignored both federal case law and the weight of the evidence, and we look forward to having a federal court review this obviously flawed decision,” said Bob Raskopf, trademark attorney for the Washington Redskins, in a statement.
The team can now introduce fresh evidence into a battle that has been confined to the patent office and limited to mostly decades-old testimony. The federal district case also gives the team an extra chance to appeal in case it loses. If the Redskins had filed their case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, their appeal would have been restricted to old depositions and documents that have already been widely dissected.
Raskopf said he was confident that the team would prevail in its quest to reverse the patent office’s ruling.
But Amanda Blackhorse, one of the five Native Americans being sued by the team, said the effort “is doomed to fail.” In a statement, she noted that the patent office has refused to grant new registrations at least 12 times since 1992 because it considers the team’s name a slur.
“Whatever ‘evidence’ the team relies upon has already been rejected time after time after time by the” patent office, she said.
The 99-page decision by the patent office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board only goes into effect if the Redskins exhaust and lose the appeals process. In the meantime, the Redskins can keep their trademark registration and can continue selling jerseys, mugs and other Redskins gear.
If the team ultimately loses, the patent office’s decision will weaken the Redskins’ ability to protect against infringement and block fake Redskins merchandise from being sold. But even in that scenario, the team still may be able to protect its legal rights by relying on state trademark laws.
The three-member board based its 2-to-1 decision on a few factors: dictionaries that for decades have defined the word “redskin” as offensive; the National Congress of American Indians’ resolution in 1993 declaring that the team name has always been a “denigrating” and “racist” label for Native Americans; and letters from several Native Americans arguing that a professional sports team using the term is no different than sports teams that could be called by names more widely regarded as slurs, such as the N-word used against African Americans.
But the trial board’s single dissenter, arguing in favor of the Redskins, said the Native American plaintiffs didn’t supply enough evidence that the team name was disparaging at the times the organization obtained its trademarks between the 1960s and 1990s.
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The five Native Americans — Blackhorse, Phillip Glover, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh, members of American Indian tribes in Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, Nebraska, and Florida — are the second group to mount a challenge to the team’s trademark protection.
The first group was led by Suzan Shown Harjo, who filed a petition in 1992. The patent office ruled in the group’s favor, but the Redskins appealed in federal court and won on a technicality: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Harjo and the other plaintiffs had waited too long after turning 18 to complain about the Redskins name. But the court did not rule on whether the team name was disparaging.
In the new case, Blackhorse and the other defendants filed their petition in 2006 when they were in their late teens and early 20s, ages considered early enough to file their grievances. They argue that federal trademark law bars the patent office from registering trademarks that “may disparage” groups or individuals. The law enables people to petition the office if they’ve been injured by a trademark and feel it was unlawfully awarded.
The Redskins argue in their lawsuit that the team name was not disparaging when they obtained the trademarks, and that the team only uses the name in the context of its football organization, and not with intent to demean an ethnicity or race.
The team and no member of the team, the lawsuit claims, “has ever engaged in behavior perceived as disparaging Native Americans.”
The complaint also makes it clear that the team is worried it could take a financial hit if it loses this case.
“The cancellation of the Redskins’ valuable registrations carries practical and financial impact,” the lawsuit notes. “The many benefits to a trademark owner that result from federal registration are meaningful, and their loss comes at a high price.”