Wednesday, June 18, 2014
In an extensive opinion today in Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., Cancellation No. 92046185, a divided Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled the trademark of the term "redskins" as violative of section 2(a), 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), prohibiting registration of marks that may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute.
The majority opinion relied upon dictionary definitions, expert opinions, and surveys to conclude that the term is disparaging - - - and was so at the time the trademark was approved. The majority rejected the laches defense in part because "there is an overriding public interest in removing from the register marks that are disparaging to a segment of the population beyond the individual petitioners."
Judge Bergsman's dissenting opinion disagreed with the
majority’s decision to grant the petition on the claim of disparagement because the dictionary evidence relied upon by the majority is inconclusive and there is no reliable evidence to corroborate the membership of National Council of American Indians.
To be clear, this case is not about the controversy, currently playing out in the media, over whether the term “redskins,” as the name of Washington’s professional football team, is disparaging to Native Americans today. The provisions of the statute under which the Board must decide this case – §§ 2(a) and 14(3) of the Trademark Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1052(a) and 1064(3) – require us to answer a much narrower, legal question: whether the evidence made of record in this case establishes that the term “redskins” was disparaging to a substantial composite of Native Americans at the time each of the challenged registrations issued.
Neither the majority or dissenting opinion - - - both of which are lengthy - - - engage with the possible First Amendment free speech issues or with the possible Equal Protection issues; this is decidely a case interpreting a statutory provision regarding trademark.
Yet the constitutional contours of speech and equality are evident in both opinions, just as constitutionalism has been implicated in the controversies surrounding the use of the term. Thus, while a "trademark case," Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc. is worth consideration by constitutional students and scholars. And its comparison to the "dykes on bikes" trademark case, which I've discussed here, is also worth consideration by those interested in constitutionalism, democracy, and language.