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Supreme Court Set to Settle Dispute over Washington Redskins Trademark Registration

American Indian Law Advisory
September 30, 2016

Muddy football player holding yellow football helmetThere has been another twist in the story of the long battle by Native American interest groups to obtain revocation of the U.S. registration of the infamous Washington Redskins trademark. This is another step in the 20-year journey that began with the initial challenges to the team name.

On Thursday, September 29, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the Federal Court's ruling in the case of Lee v Tam. That case involved a rock band called "The Slants". The leader of the band, Simon Tam, appealed the denial by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office of the band's request for trademark registration of the band's name. The US PTO had denied the band's application on the grounds that it was offensive to Asian-Americans. 

The Federal Circuit Court sided with the band and overturned the US PTO's ruling. The Court stated that the government "cannot refuse to register disparaging marks because it disapproves of the expressive messages conveyed by the marks." This decision is summarized in more detail in our prior blog posts on that ruling

The ruling by the Federal Circuit Court was particularly important to Native Americans and tribes because it was contrary to the prior ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court in a case challenging the Washington Redskins trademark. In that case, Pro-Football, Inc. v Amanda Blackhorse, et al, the Court had sided with the US PTO on the same issue. The Court found that the Redskins trademark was disparaging and invalidated its federal trademark registration. 

That case is still pending. Thus, the ruling by the Supreme Court on the validity of the US PTO ruling in Lee v Tam will have important consequences (indeed, it will most likely be decisive) for the Pro-Football case.

The Supreme Court, as in almost all actions granting certiorari review, did not state any reasons for its action, but it is typical for the Supreme Court to accept cases involving issues of national impact when there has been a split in the lower courts. It is good to see that the high court appreciates the importance of this controversial matter, and we will all have to wait and see what the result will be.

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