from the the-white-man-cometh dept
When last we checked in on the DC area’s professional football team, we had just learned that the USPTO had decided to remove certain trademark protections from certain aspects involving the team’s name on the basis that it is a demeaning slur against Native Americans. Whatever you think of that particular decision, things are about to get strange. That decision was made following a petition by five Native Americans who appeared before the USPTO and argued successfully that the term “redskin” is disparaging and racist. Daniel Snyder, owner of the Redskins, has since claimed that the team’s name is not racist at all and has vowed to continue the fight to keep his trademarks in place.
One would have thought that this would mean going through the normal USPTO appeals process. One would have been wrong, it turns out. Daniel Snyder and the Washington Redskins, who insist that they respect Native Americans, have instead decided to take the five Native Americans who petitioned the USPTO for the removal of the team’s trademarks to court in a lawsuit.
In June, the five activists – Amanda Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Phillip Gover, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh – won a landmark decision from the US Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the NFL franchise’s trademark registration. In their decision in June, the Patent office board said the trademarks were “disparaging to Native Americans.”
In response, instead of taking the case to an appellate court, the team decided to sue the five petitioners in a US district court in Virginia. This is an option used when there is a dispute over a trademark; two companies selling products under the same or very similar logos or names, for example. This case is extremely unusual because the five defendants have no vested interest in the team name or logo – they petitioned to have the trademark protection removed because of its offensive nature. On this basis, the defendants’ lawyers filed a motion to have the case dismissed.
And that filing was denied by the judge, who will allow this ridiculous lawsuit to go forward. The team’s lawyers apparently feel that using a lawsuit outside of its intended purpose is just fine in this case, even if it means the five activists will have to go through the legal proceedings, which will certainly involve some sort of time and monetary cost to them. It’s beginning to look as though Daniel Snyder can’t take a breath without pissing off at least some Native Americans. But, again, regardless of what you think of the team’s name, the important part of this story is that Snyder and the Redskins are pursuing a path specifically designed to chill speech regarding trademarks a corporation might have in place. Should this start some kind of movement to allow for lawsuits against mere petitioners in trademark disputes, well, the team with the most money wins. The point is that allowing this sort of thing to go forward attaches a legal firearm to every dollar a company has within its coffers. Who will dispute a trademark with the threat of an expensive lawsuit staring them down?
But even this move might backfire. While legal experts seem to agree the move is absurd, some of the involved parties are champing at the bit.
David Glass, the president of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, said that he welcomed the legal challenge. “We’re all smiling. We want to get Dan Snyder in court,” he told the Guardian.
I imagine one of the things Glass wants to get on the table is Snyder’s ridiculous claim that the removal of trademark protections violates his free speech rights, all while taking five activists to court simply for speaking their minds. It’ll take some serious tap dancing to make that look logically consistent.