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Washington Football Team trademark request refused, creating a potential legal hurdle

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office provided an initial refusal of the Washington Football Team's trademark application Friday. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Friday issued an initial refusal of the Washington Football Team’s application to trademark the name, creating a hurdle for the team to keep it on a permanent basis but offering only a momentary distraction if the team plans to choose any other name following the 2021 season.

The USPTO’s decision came almost one year after the initial filing made in July 2020 and cited two primary factors: the generic geographic nature of the request and previous registrations by trademark squatter Martin McCaulay.

The team likely expected this decision, which will not prohibit them from using the name on its jerseys or merchandise, but it does highlight why it will be difficult to register the WFT trademark, said Jamie Vining, a Florida lawyer and trademark expert.

“[This is] more of a headache for the lawyer than the team,” Vining added.

If the team sticks with WFT, Vining said it must convince the USPTO the name has become distinct beyond “inherently weak terms like Washington and Football and Team.” She pointed out that this isn’t unprecedented — ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs, for example, has a trademark despite the words not meaning anything in any language.

“That one’s super easy to knock down,” said George Washington University law professor Roger E. Schechter. “They could show a survey where it’s understood by over 80 percent people in the area that ‘Washington Football Team’ means the one in the National Football League and not any other.”

Whatever the name ends up being, both experts noted it’s important for the team to register it. A registered trademark allows the holder to enforce it, which helps strengthen agreements with licensees like apparel companies, and discourages counterfeiters, such as vendors selling knockoff merchandise outside the stadium.

The team could continue to use WFT as an unregistered trademark, but it would not be able to prevent others from using it, a scenario the TV show South Park played up in a 2014 episode that mocked the team for losing the trademark to its former name.

In another effort to sway the USPTO, the team could show its sales numbers for tickets and merchandise based on marketing around “Washington Football Team.” The team could also try to make WFT more distinctive by adding elements, such as a mascot. Vining noted that other filings by Snyder’s company, Pro Football, Inc., included phrases such as “Est. 1932,” suggesting the team could be probing the USPTO to figure out which signs of distinctiveness it will accept.

The issue of McCauley’s previous registrations, Schechter said, will be harder to overcome and is more pressing. The team’s first move in what could become a lengthy process must be deciding how to deal with the wordmark, which puts the spotlight on McCaulay, who holds the trademark of “Washington Football Club.” The team could try to cancel McCaulay’s registration or buy him out.

"As we have told the team in the past, Mr. McCaulay is willing to discuss assigning his valuable registration,” Darren Heitner, McCaulay’s attorney, said in a statement to The Post.

The Washington Football Team, which did not respond to a request for comment, has until Dec. 18 to file a response to the USPTO.