On June 18th, the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) granted a petition to cancel six registrations for word and design marks containing the word, REDSKINS for entertainment services. The action, Amanda Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Philip Gover, Jillian Pappan, and Courtney Tsotigh v. Pro-Football, Inc., Cancellation No. 92046185 (June 18, 2014) (“Blackhorse”), was brought by six Native Americans (later narrowed to five), who argued that the word “Redskin” was disparaging to Native Americans. Two of the three judges on the TTAB panel agreed and one dissented.
This was the second cancellation action brought by Native Americans against trademarks owned by the Washington Redskins. In the first, Harjo v. Pro Football, Inc., brought in 1992, the TTAB granted the petition for cancellation, but the federal courts ruled that the petitioners were barred by the doctrine of laches — i.e., they had waited too long after reaching the age of majority to file their action.
The registrations sought to be cancelled in Blackhorse were registered between 1974 and 1990. When the petition was filed in 2006 (shortly after the federal courts dismissed the Harjo petition), each of the petitioners had only recently reached the age of majority. Laches was no longer at issue.
Under 15 USC § 1052 of the Lanham Act, marks that “may disparage” persons or institutions “or bring them into into contempt or disrepute” are forbidden from being registered. Moreover, while the Lanham Act requires many cancellation petitions to be brought within five years of registration of the disputed mark, it provides no statute of limitation for cancellation petitions based on disparagement. Under 15 U.S.C. § 1064(3), such petitions may be brought “[a]t any time.” In the final Harjo appeal, Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo, 415 F.3d 44 (2005),the Court speculated that Congress “may well have denied companies the benefit of a statute of limitations for potentially disparaging trademarks for the very purpose of discouraging the use of such marks,” citing In re Riverbank Canning Co., 25 C.C.P.A. 1028, 95 F.2d 327, 329 (1938), which noted that the “field is almost limitless from which to select words for use as trademarks, and one who uses debatable marks does so at the peril that his mark may not be entitled to registration.”
Nevertheless, there was no fixed test for determining whether a mark is disparaging until Harjo. As re-stated in Blackhorse, the test is two-fold:
- What is the meaning of the matter in question, as it appears in the marks and as those marks are used in connection with the goods and services identified in the registrations?
- Is the meaning of the marks one that may disparage Native Americans?
In answer to the first question, the TTAB found that REDSKINS, even when used in connection with the presentation of football games, clearly refers to Native Americans. This is demonstrated by the design marks (visible on Washington Redskins helmets and elsewhere) and by the use of Native American garb and headdresses by the Washington Redskins’ band and cheerleaders (called “Redskinettes”).
In answering the second question, the TTAB noted that in addition to other evidence, it must take into account the views of a “substantial composite,” but not necessarily a majority, of the group which the mark is claimed to disparage. In addition, it had to find that REDSKINS was disparaging in connection with entertainment services (i.e., the presentation of football games) at the time the marks were registered.
Petitioners submitted two types of evidence to prove their case. General evidence as to the meaning of the word REDSKINS consisted of dictionary definitions, reference books and testimony from experts in linquistics. Specific evidence as to the views of Native Americans consisted of personal testimony and letters, newspaper articles and official records, including a 1993 Resolution of the National Congress of American Indians declaring that the REDSKINS trademarks were “offensive and disparaging.” The evidence left no doubt in the minds of the majority that REDSKINS was disparaging at the time the marks were filed. The respondent’s argument, that REDSKINS had acquired a separate meaning as the name of a football team, thereby neutralizing any disparaging effect, was rejected.
The dissent, on the other hand, believed that the petitioners failed to prove that the term was disparaging at the time of registration when used in connection with football. Furthermore, he said, dictionary definitions that labelled REDSKIN as “usually offensive” left open the possibility that it might not be in certain contexts, one of which could be football.
The TTAB ruling does not affect the ability of the Washington Redskins owner to continue using its REDSKINS trademarks. The only issue at stake in the case was whether federal law permitted registration of the mark in the US Patent and Trademark Office, thereby invoking the additional protections that registration provides. There is no question but that the USPTO made the right decision. Indeed, no federal agency should put a stamp of approval on conduct (or a trademark) that plainly disparages a segment of the population on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.