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With all the crises going on in the world today, THIS is the big issue Washington is all over today? Stripping the Washington Redskins of six federal trademarks today?
Really? Leaving aside other slightly more pressing matters, such as Iraq exploding and IRS emails disappearing, is this even the government’s call to make?
Apparently the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decided it was its call to make – effectively canceling the team’s ownership of the name “Redskins,” and the patent protections that come with it.
But the patent office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s 2-1 decision did much more than that. It broke a corporate contract. Some say, it went even further – it broke corporate law. Some, further than that – say it just broke the law, period. The government stepped in and essentially ripped up a binding patent agreement, settled in good faith and agreed to and signed off by Uncle Sam himself.
The implications of this action are staggering. Leaving aside the reasoning for this federal assault on contract law, consider the chilling consequences of the government’s actions. What’s to stop it from stripping trademark protection for other names that are suddenly deemed offensive? Or terms that are similarly protected that are just as suddenly found passé?
“Redskins” today? “Red Bull” tomorrow? Should the Cleveland Indians worry? Or the Atlanta Hawks?
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid applauded the decision on the Senate floor, claiming the time had come for Redskins owner Dan Snyder to see the light and do the right thing – change the name of a team whose very presence has become a “sad reminder” of the bigotry Native Americans must face.
Still, up until very recently, Reid didn’t seem to care much. Nor did much of the nation. Only in the last couple of years has this become a contentious political issue. All the more surprising when we look back at the case that got the hysteria ball rolling – five Native Americans bringing a petition in 2006 aimed at removing trademark registrations for the term “Redskins.” They argued the term was offensive and that the trademark office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place.
Politicians began pressing their case when it looked like Snyder clearly wasn’t changing the team’s name. Even President Obama weighed in last October, when he strongly suggested Snyder change his mind, or else.
Tell me if this doesn’t strike you as a little Tony Soprano’ish – quoting the President here: “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team – even if it had a storied history – that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”
Lo and behold, the government now has effectively changed it for him. Snyder can keep the name Redskins, if he wishes. But he can’t enjoy any of the trademark protections that come with it. That means anyone can use it. Anyone can capitalize on it. And good luck anyone on the Washington Redskins making money off it. And oh yea, Snyder? Just deal with it.
Put another way, that’s Tony, I mean “Sam,” as in Uncle Sam, saying, “that thing we signed? We didn’t sign it. It didn’t happen. Capiche?!”
Now Snyder can appeal, but history kind of tells me where all this is going. The government wins, it always wins. Just like it won breaking contract law in the Chrysler bailout in 2009, when it left bondholders who typically are the first in line after bankruptcy (even a federally-overseen one), to the back of the line. That had never been done. With the signing of an executive order, it was done, and those bondholders were done too. Deal.
So whatever your views on whether the term “Redskins” is racist, consider what the government is racing to do – change contracts and break contracts. It and it alone decides what’s offensive in the moment, based on whatever prevailing political wind is blowing at the moment.
And that…is dangerous.
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