January 10, 2014
Recently, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied a petition to trademark the name “Redskins Hog Rinds” for a brand of pork rinds. It turned the application down because it found that the term “redskins” is “a derogatory slang term that refers to, and is considered offensive by, American Indians.” Under the Lanham Act, a word or phrase cannot be trademarked if it disparages a discrete group of people in the context in which it is proposed*.
This is bad news for the company that makes those pork rinds, sure, but it’s even worse new for the Washington Redskins NFL team.
That’s because the U.S. PTO is considering revoking the team’s trademark. If it does, then anyone could use the term “Redskins” and that would cut into the team’s lucrative monopoly on official team gear and memorabilia. The pork rinds decision (Memo to self: trademark that phrase!) serves as a bellwether for the PTO’s chances of upholding the team’s trademarks.
What interests me about this story is how it seems that outside forces might eventually force the Redskins to do what the team has for so long resisted – change its name. Redskins leadership has defended the name as “a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride and respect – the same values we know guide Native Americans…” While that may be true, it’s also true that re-branding the team would be costly in terms of merchandise and memorabilia sales, to say nothing of the expense of new uniforms, new logos, new branding campaigns, etc. If PTO decides not to enforce the Redskins’ trademark, though, the team will have to decide if that expense is worth it in order to secure a name to which it can hold copyright protection.
- For an enlightening explanation of how some terms can be seen as offensive in some contexts, and thus aren’t able to be trademarked, but are not offensive in others, see CNN’s ‘Government agency calls ‘Redskins’ offensive.’