The process of trademarking a business name is already protracted enough without having sudden left-turn decisions on having a trademark dropped. Many people who seek out trademarks for the first time end up finding out just how protracted the process ultimately is. And the scrutiny from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office may be intense sometimes, hence resulting in losing a trademark based on public perception of your business name. Such was the case recently with the NBA’s Washington Redskins that’s victim of an old business name created in a different era.
When it comes to business names of the past, we forget that some of them had derogatory references that are frowned upon today. Some of those names have become solid enough institutions where they somehow ended up surviving through the era when being politically correct was expected of everyone. Today, any business with a derogatory reference to a particular race is likely going to be scrutinized by the Trademark Office and potentially destroy any trademark privileges its enjoyed for decades.
A lot of trademark lawyers will be looking to the case of the Washington Redskins that had their trademark ordered invalid by a judge based on the derogatory reference to Native-Americans. The trademark drop happened once before to the Redskins back in the late 1990s, though they somehow managed to retain trademark protection, perhaps with NBA intervention. After all, considering many NBA team names were created long before any current basketball superstars were born, it shows the NBA respects tradition.
Regardless, the NBA is probably hypersensitive to anything racial now after the Donald Sterling incident with the L.A. Clippers. They didn’t do anything, however, to influence the decision on the Redskins, which gives you some pause on just how much we may be ignoring any derogatory business titles out there referencing Native-Americans.
When it comes to Native-Americans, we don’t seem quite as bothered by a name like “Redskins” as much as we should be. While Americans have finally realized the truth about our unfortunate bloody history with Native-Americans during the founding of North America, no doubt other business titles are out there referencing Native-Americans in a slightly offensive way. But many of those are likely local and not a nationally known basketball team.
It’s one reason why the trademark drop on the Washington Redskins should be a wake-up call to any business that’s used the same name for over 50 years.
The Era of Derogatory Business Names
The era of our grandparents and great-grandparents had plenty of different attitudes about other ethnicities that are frequently unfortunate. Even if some were worse than others, business names back then would sometimes use references to certain races that were considered acceptable by white culture. This included names applied to Native-Americans and African-Americans. One notable restaurant chain in history was a victim of this concept, and they paid a heavy price already years ago. If you remember Sambo’s Restaurants that existed up and down the U.S. West Coast between the 1960s-1980s, then you remember the controversy over a chain referencing the story of “Little Black Sambo.”
In the early 1980s, the Sambo’s name was changed because of the uproar over using an offensive term to African-Americans. While just one Sambo’s still exists in Southern California today, all the rest of the restaurants had the name changed to avoid any more controversy. Had they kept it much longer, it’s possible the Trademark Office would have terminated their trademark.
If you own a business locally that’s used the same business name for many decades, you might want to consider changing it if it has even the slightest connotations to something racial or something else controversial. You might have your trademark revoked, even if common law trademark protection can still apply, particularly to the Washington Redskins.
It’s a new legal problem that nobody likely saw coming. However, just as surprising racism still rears its ugly head from an older generation, the remnants of being derogatory are probably still out there in family-run small business names across the country.