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Supreme Court ruling signifies big win for Redskins

A Monday ruling from the Supreme Court has provided the Redskins with much-needed backing in their trademark conflict against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The Washington-based NFL team has been in and out of court since 1992 in an attempt to retain legal protection for its name.

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The legal turmoil began when plaintiff, Susan Harjo, accompanied by other prominent fellow Native Americans, filed a petition to have the team's trademark registration canceled. They based their action on the grounds that the team name was "disparaging," which violated terms set forth by the Lanham "Trademark" Act. Harjo would eventually prevail, seven years later, in 1999 when the USPTO agreed to remove the trademarks.

Pro-Football, Inc. appealed this decision, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support the disparagement claims made by Harjo. A D.C. district court agreed with Pro-Football, Inc. and reversed the USPTO's ruling. All attempts at appealing this reversal were snubbed by the laches remedy: the idea that the Native American plaintiffs had waited too long to pursue legal action regarding the football team's name. Thus, all subsequent counterefforts involved using Congress as a vehicle for legislative change. These efforts, however, were unfruitful. All bills aimed at amending the Lanham Act such that it voided disparaging trademarks remained stagnant. The USPTO, on the other hand, persistently denied any Redskins-related trademark applications submitted throughout this period.

The issue was reinvigorated in 2014, when a new suit was filed by Amanda Blackhorse - a maneuver intended to circumvent the laches remedy by involving younger plaintiffs who hadn't had the same opportunity as their predecessors to voice concerns over the trademark. This time, the USPTO set forth more specific standards pertaining to the term "disparaging," which were eventually used to justify the Office's decision to again have the Redskin's trademark protections canceled.

Pro Football, Inc. appealed this decision to the Appeals Court of Washington, D.C., where it was ultimately reaffirmed. The team's attorneys remained persistent, appealing again - this time to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where the case has remained idle for the past two years, spelling a defeat for the Washington Redskins. Without federal trademark protection, the team has become significantly more vulnerable to infringement by outside parties, as the government is no longer legally obligated to defend the use of its name.

This all changed Monday, however, when a highly similar case, Matal v. Tam, was decided upon by the Supreme Court. Asian band leader, Tam, argued for the right to receive trademark protection for his band name, "The Slants." The USPTO had originally denied Tam this protection under similar principles governing the Redskins' case. Tam's case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which is where the constitutionality of the Lanham Act was addressed. The Supreme Court voted unanimously this past Monday that the Act conflicts with Americans' right to freedom of speech. Contrary to the wording of the Lanham Act, the USPTO may not deny trademark protection based on the offensive or "disparaging" nature of a name.

This decision sets a favorable precedent for the Redskins, as their trademark denial hinges upon the notion that the word "redskin" is damaging to a significant portion of the Native American population. Thus, the Redskins will likely soon prevail in their 25-year battle to secure federal protection for their name.

Sources:

Amanda Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc. 111 U.S.P.Q. 2s 1080 (2014).

Hananel, Sam. (19 June 2017). "Justices Say Law on Offensive Trademarks is Unconstitutional." The Daily Record. Retrieved from: http://www.thedailyrecord.com.

Pro-Football, Inc. v. Suzan S. Harjo et al. 565 F.3d 880 (2009).

Shapira, Ian. (08 July 2015). "Federal Judge Orders Cancellation of Redskins' Trademark Registrations." The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com.

White, Andrew. (19 June 2017). "Trademark Case Could Help Redskins Keep Name." International Business Times. Retrieved from: http://www.ibtimes.com.

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