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Ruling On Redskins' Trademarks Carries Symbolic Weight


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has canceled six trademark registrations held by the Washington Redskins. Today's ruling determined the football teams trademark name is disparaging to Native Americans and unfit for federal registration. But as Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch team reports, the team still owns the Redskins name and can continue to use it.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Let's be clear. Says intellectual property law professor Christopher Sprigman of New York University, today's ruling does not mean Washington's football team has lost its trademarks.

CHRISTOPHER SPRIGMAN: It just cancels their federal registrations, but they're still good trademarks.

WANG: Sprigman says a trademark doesn't have to be registered with the federal government. For example, owners of unregistered trade marks can still bring civil lawsuits against counterfeiters and have their fake-goods seized. But without a registered trademark, they can't sue in criminal court or stop counterfeit goods from entering U.S. borders.

SPRIGMAN: They can't put anyone in jail under federal law for selling counterfeit goods, but they can still sue them for a lot of money.

WANG: So today's ruling, if upheld on appeal, would make it harder for the team owner to control what's marketed under the Redskins name. Jesse Witten, one of the attorneys for the five Native American plaintiffs who brought this issue to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, says today's decision is a symbolic win.

JESSE WITTEN: My clients were deeply offended that the Trademark Office had approved these trademark registrations over the years. And they wanted to give the federal government an opportunity to get it straight, which they just did today.

WANG: Today wasn't the first time the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board determined the Redskins trademarks to be, quote, "disparaging to Native Americans." Registrations for the trademarks were previously canceled in 1999 after a similar petition, but the decision was later reversed through court appeals four years later. In a statement, the Washington team's trademark attorney, Bob Raskopf, said, the team will appeal today's ruling and are, quote, "confident we will prevail once again." But law professor Christopher Sprigman says team owner, Dan Snyder, is in a different political climate.

SPRIGMAN: It's going to be more difficult for Dan Snyder to defend the use of the term Redskins as a name for the team. And I think in the future, you know, for example, it's going to be more difficult for the Cleveland Indians to defend Chief Wahoo as the insignia for the Indians.

MARSHA WOOD: There are other names, like the Braves and the Chiefs, the Blackhawks. So all those names are going to be deemed offensive, as well.

WANG: A question from Washington Redskins fan Marsha Wood of Washington, D.C., after hearing about today's ruling.

WOOD: As far as football goes, I'm a Redskins fan. And I can't see knowing the team by any other name, other than the Redskins.

WANG: Loyalty to the team name has been tough to diminish among diehard fans, but activists behind the fight for a name change are hoping to appeal to a sense of decency. Joel Barkin is a spokesman for the Oneida Nation who supported the petition.

JOEL BARKIN: It doesn't end here, but it certainly gives us a lot of momentum as we continue to push our efforts to have the name changed.

WANG: The Patent and Trademark Office says the Redskins trademark will remain on their federal register until a court reviews the ruling. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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