A group of six Native American tribal leaders have filed a petition to cancel the REDSKINS® trademark registration, a moniker used by the Redskins professional football team since it first changed its name to the Boston Redskins in 1933. According to some accounts, the team was so named to honor its first coach who was a Native American. (See https://www.intellectualpropertylawblog.com/redskinsTMdecision.pdf). The team moved to Washington D.C. in 1937 and have been known as the Washington Redskins since that time.
Under the Lanham Act, which governs trademark issuance, a trademark may be cancelled at any time if it is scandalous or derogatory. Specifically, a trademark cannot "disparage . . . persons, living or dead . . . or bring them into contempt or disrepute." 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a). Only those claiming to be harmed by the allegedly derogatory nature of a trademark can file a cancellation proceeding under the Lanham Act. 15 U.S.C. § 1064. Petitioning tribal leaders claim to have suffered harm as a result of the football team name which they claim to be "pejorative, derogatory, denigrating, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging, and racist."
A previous group of Native American leaders filed to cancel the REDSKINS® trademark in 1992. The Trademark Board initially agreed that the term was disparaging, and cancelled the mark. See Harjo v. Pro-Football Inc., 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1705 (TTAB 1999). However, the ruling was subsequently overturned by the District of Columbia Circuit Court on a procedural technicality. See Pro-Football Inc. v. Harjo 284 F. Supp. 2d 96 (D.D.C. 2003). The current petitioners may be able to rely on much of the evidence filed in the 1992 case and achieve a permanent result.
Notably, cancellation of the REDSKINS® trademark registration would not force the team to change its name. After 73 years of use as a trademark, the team might also retain substantial common law trademark rights.
Click here for a PDF copy of the full text of the tribal leaders’ petition.