Monday, June 23, 2014

A rose by any other name…

It is rare that items from the United States Patent and Trademark Office are “breaking news” or even make general news headlines.  But it happened Wednesday (6/18/14) with the announcement that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) – the administrative tribunal within the USPTO – decided in favor of the Native Americans who had petitioned to cancel six trademark registrations owned by Pro Football, Inc. (Dan Snyder) for use in connection with the operation of the Washington Redskins  professional football team.  In rendering its decision, the TTAB found that “Redskins” was disparaging of Native Americans as used in the subject marks at the time of their various registrations.  

The administrative ruling isn’t really a surprise.  The name of this team has been an issue for more than 20 years.  In fact, a similar ruling was issued by the TTAB years ago, but was reversed on appeal for technical reasons.  And while the USPTO at one time refused applications for marks containing “Redskin(s)” based on confusing similarity to the football marks, it has more recently refused  applications for the registration of such marks as REDSKINS HOG RINDS and WASHINGTON REDSKIN POTATOES (not for potatoes) on the grounds that the marks are disparaging.

The TTAB administrative decision is a big deal, but not necessarily for its direct consequences.

Despite some headlines claiming that the TTAB ruling cancelled the “Redskins” trademarks, the TTAB only has the power to cancel the trademark registrations.  If this decision stands (is not appealed or confirmed on appeal), the owner of the Washington Redskins will lose the benefits that come from its U.S. registrations, but in the scheme of things, such advantages may be relatively minor at this point.

The team has been operating under the name “Redskins” since 1932 and has well-established common law rights based on long-term use and fame.   These proceedings will not determine if Dan Snyder can legally continue to use the team name – he can.  As to whether or not he should continue to use the name—well, that game was over a long time ago and the TTAB decision (and public reaction) merely emphasizes that he is missing the opportunity to be a graceful loser.   

Trademark rights are all about reputation and goodwill.  Whether or not “Redskins” is determined to be legally disparaging really doesn’t matter.  A reasonable segment of the population not only doesn’t like the brand, but they also think it is disrespectful, racist, mean-spirited, clueless or any number of other things that don’t exactly suggest good brand value.  The team name is tarnished and there is nothing that Dan Snyder can ever do to rehabilitate this brand.

One has to seriously wonder why he continues to insist that he will NEVER change the team name.  There should be little negative effect from a change – he has a regional monopoly and true fans of the team will not abandon it just because of a name change.

And really, how financially astute can he be if he doesn’t see the increased merchandise sales that would go along with a name change?

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