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In 1999, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ("TTAB") decided Harjo v. Pro-Football, Inc., in which a group of Native Americans (the "Petitioners") alleged that the term "Redskin(s)" was a pejorative, derogatory, degrading, offensive, scandalous, contemptuous, disreputable, disparaging and racist designation for a Native American person; the marks owned by Pro-Football, Inc. ("Pro-Football"), were offensive, disparaging and scandalous; Pro-Football's use of the marks offended the petitioners and other Native Americans, causing them to be damaged by the continued registration of the marks; the marks consisted of or comprised of matter which disparages Native American persons and brings them into contempt, ridicule, and disrepute; and the marks consist of or comprise of scandalous matter. In a lengthy opinion, the TTAB found that the marks were not scandalous, but they may be disparaging of Native Americans to a substantial composite of this group of people, and therefore ordered that the registrations be canceled in due course. In September of 2003, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (the "district court" or the "court") reversed the TTAB's decision regarding disparagement in an equally long opinion holding that the TTAB's finding of disparagement was not supported by substantial evidence and also that the doctrine of laches precluded consideration of the case. This article accordingly focuses on those same two issues, in particular the actual allegations raised by the Petitioners and the relative strengths and weaknesses of those claims; the standard employed by the TTAB and the decision ultimately reached by the TTAB according to that standard; and the TTAB's reversal by the district court. This article will also posit alternative arguments and viewpoints in addition to assessing the actual effects of this case. Moreover, because the district court did not challenge the standard articulated by the TTAB for evaluating a disparagement claim, whether and how to reconcile laches and secondary meaning may continue to be an issue in the future. Therefore, in the final section of this article, a standard is proposed for analysis of disparagement claims.


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  • Subject
    • Indigenous Law

    • Intellectual Property Law

    • Race and Ethnicity

  • Journal title
    • Boston College Intellectual Property and Technology Forum

  • Volume
    • 2004

  • Pagination
    • 1-15

  • Date submitted

    31 October 2022

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