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Teams continue to battle in Redskins trademark dispute


The US Supreme Court could be asked to weigh in on the Redskins trademark case as the dispute over the football team’s name continues.   

For many sports fans in America, the name Washington Redskins is central to the history of the American football team. But, numerous civil rights, educational, athletic and academic organisations in the country consider such uses of Native American names and/or symbols to be a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping.

In 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) agreed with their argument, revoking what it has termed “disparaging” trademarks – the second time such a decision has been made in 15 years.

However, the American football team has so far refused to change its name and logo, with Dan Snyder, the team’s owner, vowing to fight the ruling. This means that the Redskins trademark registrations will continue to remain valid while the case is appealed and the appeals process is exhausted.

Nonetheless, the legal rights to the Redskin’s trademark have been significantly weakened by the 2014 ruling, and it will be more difficult for the team to fight infringement and counterfeiting activity without the support of valid trademark rights. Both sides will now be looking to the US Supreme Court to provide some clarification.

Valuable heritage or a racial anachronism?
Trademarks, like any other use of language, are subject to the ethics and morals of the time in which they are registered. For this reason, trademark registrations are scrutinised by the authorities on filing to check that they are not only capable of functioning as trademarks, but also to ensure that they  are not contrary to public policy or to accepted principles of morality.

But, of course, as time goes by what is deemed to be acceptable or not can change. A notable example of this in the UK is the ‘Golly’ mascot once used by Robertson’s jam (it was ‘retired’ by the brand in 2002).

The advent of the internet and social media has also led to new uses for language and changes in the meanings of some words. An innocent name could, at no fault of the trademark owner, be used in such a way that it could become objectionable over time. For this reason, brand owners are advised to monitor the way in which their marks are used to try to safeguard their rights by ensuring that they do not fall foul of changing linguistic tastes.

Find out more about trademark watching here