Last week the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the US Patent Office heard a challenge to the granting of a trademark to the Washington Redskins Football Team for the name "Redskins." The Lanham Trademark Act prohibits the issuance of a trademark that:
Consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute;
In 1992, Native American activist, Suzan Shown Harjo, challenged the prior issuance of the Redskins trademark on the basis of the Lanham Act language quoted above. In 1999 the TTAB ruled in favor of Harjo and the NFL appealed. In 2003, the US District Court ruled that laches barred the claims as the claimants had waited too long after reaching the age of majority to bring the claim. In 2005, the Court of Appeals upheld the laches ruling as to all but one claimant and remanded the case to the District Court for examination of that claim. The District Court ruled against the final claimant and in 2009, the Court of Appeals affirmed and the US Supreme Court denied cert.
In the meantime, in 2006, another challenge to the trademark was filed by younger Native American claimants who would not be subject to the laches defense. That is the case that was argued to the TTAB last week, 21 years after Suzan Shown Harjo filed her original challenge.
Hopefully, it will not take another 21 years for the legal system to embrace justice and common sense in upholding the challengers' claim against this patently offensive use of this symbol to objectify and denigrate a human race and culture. It's a shame that the Board has no authority to award damages.
Update: NY Times 10/10/13: here
Suzan Shown Harjo. Source of image: http://www.ahalenia.com/harjo/index.html
Washington Redskins graphic. Source of image: High Court Punts Washington Redskins Trademark Case