Should Washington Redskins Change Their Name? The USPTO Thinks So

intellectual property lawThe Washington Redskins have been pressured to change their name for many years now, including by a recent coalition of Native American tribal groups, civil rights organizations, and 49 U.S. senators led by Sen. Harry Reid. Now, however, the team’s owners face another, unexpected source for that pressure: the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

The USPTO has canceled six of the Washington team’s trademarks, saying that they are offensive to Native Americans. Under current intellectual property laws, the USPTO has the right to cancel any patent or trademark if it is deemed offensive to any group. The decision to end the trademarks results from a lawsuit brought about by five Native Americans. In the meantime, the team is free to use their own logo, but this situation creates a wide array of problems, especially for an NFL team that relies on licensing to make its profits.

This would place the team’s merchandise in the 9% of all products brought and sold worldwide that violate U.S. intellectual property rights. Intellectual property helps drive 40% of economic growth, accounting for more than half of the country’s exports. Counterfeit and pirated product trade increased across the globe by 7.6% between 2000 and 2007, and that number has likely gone even higher in recent years, which significantly impacts the U.S. economy. For the eighth most profitable NFL team, having no protection against unlawful licensing and other violations of intellectual property laws could create serious problems.

The problem with intellectual property laws, specifically when it comes to intellectual property theft, is that a brand without a trademark can’t defend its name or logo as its own. In the case of the Washington Redskins, the team’s owners can’t prohibit others from creating unlicensed merchandise, which creates a serious issue in claiming ownership of its brand. The team is currently attempting to appeal the decision in order to reclaim their trademarks, all while still facing increased pressure from all sides, even fans, to change the name.

Just how much would it cost to change the name? One marketer interviewed by The Washington Post estimates that the change could cost under $5 million, with the most notable changes going to the merchandise, stadium, training facilities, and signage. However, teams have changed names and locations throughout the NFL’s history, most recently with the Houston Oilers moving to Tennessee in 1997 to later become the Tennessee Titans in 1999. Although the cost of the change was not reported, the change for Washington will come without a relocation, which may help reduce expenses for the team.

The Washington Redskins have experienced issues with trademark, copyright and patent laws previously, having had their trademark denied in 1999, as well, for failing the two prong test used to determine disparagement. The test relies on the likely meaning of a name and if that name refers to any persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, then whether the name is disparaging. It took until 2003 to appeal that decision, and it could take another four years to reverse the current one, as well. Working with attorneys specializing in intellectual property protection could cost the team a significant amount — up to thousands of dollars per hour. Taking the advice of critics and fans, however, and changing the team name might offset some of the costs of this process.