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OPINION - Offended by a trademark

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Like many people, I'm offended by the n-word. It's a racially disparaging term for blacks.

For purposes of discussion, let's consider the LA rap group Niggaz Wit Attitudes, also known as N.W.A.

If I had the money and the time, I'd go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office and file a complaint. U.S. patent law says a trademark cannot be " disparaging or perceived as disparaging by a group of people. " I'd win. And N.W.A., and their record label and concert promoters, would lose the right to the band's trademarked logo. The bright red spray-painted logo would then be in the public domain. Anyone would be free to start churning out N.W.A. t-shirts, baseball caps, posters, and perhaps even album cover art. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre would not be pleased. They'd lose a fortune in merchandising revenue.

This is also patently (pardon the pun) unfair.

A name -- even an offensive one -- that others built up should not suddenly become a marketing free-for-all just because someone else is offended.

But that's what happened today to the Washington Redskins.

A group of five Native-American activists filed a lawsuit saying they are disparaged by the Redskins name and logo. It languished for eight years in the administrative backwoods of the U.S. Patent Office. And today they got a 2-1 ruling in their favor in front of the Trademark Trials and Appeals board. The Redskins no longer own the rights to their name and logo. Someone, somewhere, is ready to begin making knock-off Redskins key chains, boxer shorts and satin jackets. The ruling doesn't require the Redskins to change their name. But it does hit them in the pocketbook, and the rest of the NFL with them. (The NFL owners share the revenue from merchandise sales, so all the team are potentially taking a hit.)

The team will file an appeal. They won a similar complaint at the appeals court level, but the ruling was on a technicality, not on the merits. The Redskins will eventually win.

The case is an obvious back-door attempt to get the Redskins to change their name. Of course the proper response to a name or brand you don't like is to not associate yourself with it, not to sue and win a shoot-the-moon ruling. That's why I don't own any Niggaz Wit Attitudes CDs, and why I haven't taken my complaint to the U.S. Patent Office.

Chris Conley
6.18.14

Image: U.S. Office of Patents and Trademarks, us.gov