The United States Patent and Trademark Office announced on Wednesday that it is to cancel six trademark registrations belonging to the Washington Redskins, ruling that the NFL team's name is disparaging to Native Americans.
In a landmark decision, the trademark trial and appeal board found that the name cannot be trademarked under federal law, which prohibits the protection of names that “may disparage” individuals or groups, or “bring them into contempt or disrepute”.
“We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans,” the board wrote in its ruling.
Amanda Blackhorse, who brought the case against the team, called the ruling a "great victory for Native Americans – and for all Americans".
While the ruling does not prevent the team from continuing to use its name, Blackhorse said she hopes it will put pressure on the NFL team to change it.
“I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed,” she said.
Under United States law, people who can demonstrate that they have been “injured” by a trademarked term may file a petition to have it cancelled. In 2006, a group of five Native Americans, Blackhorse among them, petitioned the appeal board to have the Redskins’ registrations cancelled on grounds that the term is offensive.
Blackhorse said: “The team’s name is racist and derogatory. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”
A similar petition was filed in 1992, and in 1999, the appeal board ruled that the term “redskin” was disparaging, ordering the team’s trademark registrations be cancelled.
The team, however, appealed the board’s decision to the District of Colombia circuit court of appeals. It ruled in favour of the NFL team on technical grounds, after determining that the petitioners had waited too long after turning age 18 to file their petitions with the board.
"This victory was a long time coming and reflects the hard work of many attorneys at our firm," the plaintiffs' lead attorney Jesse Witten said in a statement.
The term Redskins was used in six separate trademarks authorised between 1967 and 1990.
"We are extraordinarily gratified to have prevailed in this case," attorney Alfred Putnam said in the statement. "The dedication and professionalism of our attorneys and the determination of our clients have resulted in a milestone victory that will serve as a historic precedent."