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USPTO Cancels Washington, D.C. NFL Franchise's Trademark Registrations
June 19, 2014

The United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a decision yesterday cancelling six federal trademark registrations owned by the Washington, D.C. National Football League franchise. The cancellation proceeding was brought by five Native American petitioners on the basis that the marks disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a). The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) panel of three Administrative Trademark Judges sided with the petitioners, cancelling all six of the challenged registrations.

The registrations in question were all obtained between 1967 and 1990 on behalf of the Washington NFL franchise, and are all word marks. The registrations were previously challenged in 1992 in a similar proceeding that also challenged the team logos without the word marks. In the prior proceeding the TTAB heldthat the marks were disparaging to Native Americans when registered and ordered the registrations canceled. The Washington NFL franchise appealed the decision in the prior proceeding to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who reversed the decision as barred by the doctrine of laches.

The TTAB panel found that the five petitioners had standing to bring the cancellation proceeding, and were not barred from doing so by the doctrine of laches. The TTAB panel further found that the alleged honorable intent and manner of use of the term did not contribute to the determination of whether the marks were disparaging, but rather the sole issue was whether a substantial composite of the referenced group found the term to be disparaging in the context of the Washington NFL franchise during the time period when the registrations were obtained (1967-1990).

The TTAB consulted evidence that reflected the sentiments of Native Americans, including a resolution passed by the National Congress of American Indians, various reports and testimony, newspaper articles, official records, and letters, and concluded that the substantial evidence may have disparaged a substantial composite of Native Americans at the times of the registrations.

Administrative Trademark Judge Bergsman dissented in the opinion on the basis that the petitioners had not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that a substantial composite of Native Americans found the marks to be disparaging in connection with the Washington NFL franchise during the relevant time frame.

The full decision and additional information are available here.

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