by Phillip Barengolts, Partner,  Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP

Today, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has upheld an administrative ruling that canceled federal trademark registrations for the REDSKINS nickname of the Washington football team despite the team’s constitutional and other challenges. Pro-Football, Inc. v. Blackhorse, Case No. 14-cv-01043 (E.D. Va. July 8, 2015). [1]

Last year, on June 18, 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“TTAB”) canceled six of Washington’s federal registrations for the trademark REDSKINS because the name disparages Native Americans.[2] The team appealed the ruling to federal court. It argued, essentially, that Section 2(a) of the Federal Trademark Act (the “Lanham Act”), which prohibits the federal registration of potentially disparaging trademarks, is unconstitutional and that the Native American petitioners did not prove that the REDSKINS trademark is, in fact, disparaging. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the Eastern District of Virginia sided with the Native American petitioners on all counts.

The decision highlights an important aspect of trademark practice. As the Court admonished the parties, this case concerns the right of the Washington football team to register the REDSKINS trademark– not the team’s right to use the mark. The TTAB also highlighted this point in its decision, but mass media, and even many attorneys, confused this point.

The rights conferred by registration are important and valuable , but the TTAB only has the right to decide whether a trademark may be registered, it has no authority to stop the use of a trademark. Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, at issue in this dispute, only applies to registration of trademarks. As the Court stated, “Thus, regardless of this Court’s ruling, [the team] can still use the Redskins Marks in commerce.”

As a practical matter, however, a trademark owner who is not permitted to register its preferred mark often chooses not to use that mark, but, ultimately, it is the trademark owner’s choice. This point is crucial for the Court’s decision and crucial for an understanding of when and why to bring an action before the TTAB.[3]

As a result of this limited application of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the statute survived the constitutional challenge brought by the team. In particular, the Court found that Section 2(a) does not even implicate the First Amendment precisely because it does not prohibit the use of a trademark, and therefore, does not prohibit or impinge on any speech.

The Court also found that