As teams like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians announce plans to change or “retire” longstanding team names that are widely considered controversial or offensive, many fans and the general public have brought up the term “trademark” and wonder how and if there are legal factors at play here.

University of Richmond law professor Ashley Dobbs teaches and writes about both trademark and copyright law as part of her role as Director of Intellectual Property and Transactional Law Clinic. As she explains, this headline news is really less about the law and more about long-term business, financial, and public relations issues.

“The names of sports teams has passed beyond the realm of trademark law now thanks to the Supreme Court’s decisions in the 2017 Matal v. Tam and the 2019 Brunetti cases,” said Dobbs. “This pair of cases invalidated the part of federal law that allowed the United States Patent and Trade Office to bar trademark registration of names it found to be ‘disparaging, immoral, or scandalous’ on the basis that the law violated First Amendment rights, because it discriminated on the basis of viewpoint.” 

“What you’re seeing now is the result of economic, public, and political pressure. In the wake of the pressure brought about by recent demonstrations, companies are finally choosing to remove racist or stereotypical images and names from products and sports teams — for example, Quaker Oats changing the ‘Aunt Jemima’ logo for syrups because it’s based on a racial stereotype,” Dobbs added.

As these teams move forward though and choose new names, trademark law will very much come back into play as they work to secure rights to the names.

“There are new trademark issues in the news; for example, a man in Northern Virginia has been registering trademarks he’s speculated might be new options for the Redskins. He’s been selling his own product using the names, but he says he’s not in it for the money, but to help the team change its name,” said Dobbs. “Others have also registered names they think other teams might use. With trademark law, there is a requirement that the holder of a trademark actually use the term in question or have a bona fide intent to do so with a certain period of time, so it will be interesting to see this play out in the USPTO.”

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Note: Media wishing to connect with Dobbs as a resource can contact Sunni Brown, director of media relations, at sbrown5@richmond.edu.