IndyBar: Lessons in Timing from the Washington Redskins Trademark Cancellation

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By Constance R. Lindman, SmithAmundsen LLC, and Kaylea Weiler, SmithAmundsen LLC

This article was originally posted on the IndyBar Intellectual Property Section’s webpage at To subscribe to news based on your practice area and/or interests, update your member profile at

Last week, upon petition by five Native American individuals, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) cancelled six trademarks bearing the word “Redskin” registered to the Washington, D.C., based NFL team between 1967 and 1990. Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act allows the USPTO to refuse or cancel registration for marks which “disparage persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute.” Challenges under Section 2(a) may be brought “at any time.”

The TTAB indicated that the relevant inquiry is not whether the term is disparaging in the eyes of the American public as a whole, but whether the referenced group finds the term to be disparaging “as of the various dates of registration of the involved marks.” The TTAB evaluated extensive historical evidence (newspaper articles, television programs, letters of protest, dictionaries) from the relevant time periods to evaluate Native American perception of the term “redskin.” However, the board disregarded evidence that the original owner of the team (then the Boston Redskins), chose the name to honor the team’s Native American head coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, because the owner’s intent in using the mark is not relevant.

The TTAB ultimately found that the term “redskin” was and is commonly identified as a derogatory racial slur, and is therefore disparaging. One judge dissented.

What now for the Washington Redskins?

The controversy surrounding the trademarks and logos associated with D.C.’s beloved football team is not new. So why did it take so long for the trademark to be cancelled, and can the Redskins organization overcome the decision on appeal? The answer is complex and uncertain.

The very same issues have been in litigation since 1992 when seven other Native American individuals brought a nearly identical petition in Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo, 284 F. Supp. 2d 96. The TTAB initially granted the petition and cancelled the registrations in 1999 under Section 2(a), but the DC District Court reversed, finding that (1) there was insufficient evidence to find that “redskins” is disparaging, and (2) the equitable principle of laches applied.

With respect to the laches defense, the District Court held that, because the first Redskin trademark registered in 1967 and the petitioners had not contested such registration until 1992, they had waited too long to seek redress. However, in 2005 the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit overturned that decision, noting that one of the Harjo petitioners was only one year old when the first registration issued. It held that any evaluation of laches as to that petitioner must begin as of the time he reached majority, in 1984. Without addressing the District Court’s finding on the issue of whether the mark is “disparaging,” the DC Circuit remanded the case for determination of whether the youngest petitioner had “slumbered on his rights.” See Pro-Football, Inc. v. Harjo, 415 F. 3d 44. On remand, the District Court again found that laches applied, because eight years had passed from the time the petitioner reached the age of majority to the time the petition for cancellation was filed in 1992. That decision essentially ended the litigation for the seven Harjo petitioners.

The 2005 appellate decision, though often overlooked, is an important aspect of this legal drama, because even though the Redskins organization had prevailed in retaining its trademark rights in the Harjo suit, the decision that laches cannot be invoked against a petitioner until he has attained majority has allowed for the filing of yet another petition by a new group of presumably younger individuals.

The US Circuit courts are split on the issue of whether the principle of laches applies to Section 2(a) cancellations which otherwise may be brought “at any time.” Therefore, choice of venue would be important to any party opposing registration or challenging a USPTO cancellation decision. In its 2005 opinion in Harjo, the DC Circuit officially took the position that the statutory language “at any time” does not bar a defense of laches, but such a defense must be separately evaluated as to each individual petitioner. The court pondered, “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?”

Since the TTAB cancellation decision issued last week, the owner of the Washington Redskins has made it clear that the organization intends to continue using the trademarks. The Washington Redskins have filed an appeal and the TTAB has suspended its decision pending the appeal. The Redskins organization is likely banking upon its earlier victory in Harjo, where the District Court of DC held there was insufficient evidence to find the marks were “disparaging.” As the dissenting judge in the 2014 TTAB decision noted, the evidence has not substantially changed from the time of the 2003 District Court ruling and the 2014 TTAB cancellation decision. At this point, the fate of the “Redskins” trademark remains a “coin toss.”•


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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.