Blog: The Feds Could Take Your Trademark, Too

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As a businessperson, you should be afraid, very afraid, of what the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office did recently to Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. For a business, any patents or trademarks it owns are what protects the brand from outside entities or individuals that may want to deceive the general public with a knock-off, cloned fakes, or similarly named products, to profit from the success of the original.

Let’s examine one of the world’s most recognized brands: Coca-Cola. It’s widely known the original formula for Coke used coca plant leaf extract, which is the same source that narcotic cocaine is derived from. Cocaine was removed from the formula in 1903 (but existed in trace amounts until 1929) and was replaced with America’s seemingly favorite drug: caffeine. However, the name didn’t change to “Caff-Cola” or something along those lines.

Now let’s suppose a group like the National Education Association donates significant campaign funds to a political figure with influence. The idea is the politician will carry the water for the NEA because it decides the word “coca” in Coca-Cola encourages drug use among kids, who soft drink makers frequently market to. To discourage any affiliation or reference to drug use, let’s say Coca-Cola has been stripped of its trademark. Whoa. While a stretch, it’s not as unrealistic as it seems in light of what was done to the Redskins.

Applying for a patent or trademark has a defined process that mandates public notice for objection or comments. The NFL’s Redskins went through this process in 1972, according to the U.S. Patent’s website. The Native American groups who are now behind the forcible change of the Washington moniker had their opportunity to object when the trademarks were applied for. It doesn’t appear they objected then, so they missed their window — a period of six months or more from when the trademark was published for opposition until it was granted. The last time the Redskins were stripped of their trademarks was in 1999. However, in 2003, a Federal Appeals Court reinstated the brands. The same outcome is likely, and is exactly what should be ruled again.

In 2004, an Annenberg Public Policy poll concluded that 90 percent of Native Americans did not find the name Redskins offensive. Today, the advent of social media provides a vocal minority an opportunity to be incredibly loud. Likewise, the decision of The Detroit News to no longer use the name “Redskins” in their publication is done in the spirit of appeasing the 10 percent who object. The Thought Police will soon be moving onto a new target. So, what is next?

If Daniel Snyder decides to change the Redskins’ name, he can do so at any time since he is the owner of the team. It should not be forced upon him by a federal government run amuck with an overabundance of political correctness championed by the current administration with marching orders delivered to the likes of Sen. Harry Reid, who has been quoted as saying, “The writing is on the wall. This name will change, and justice will be done…” According to campaign documents, Reid has received a minimum of $68,000 in contributions from Native American organizations within the last few years.

Regardless of where you stand on the name Redskins, if you have any intellectual property at your company, obtained and granted through the Patent Office, you should be very concerned about the lack of due process delivered to Snyder and the Redskins. The slope just gets more slippery and steep from here. Is anyone up for a bottle of “Caff-Cola”?

Post-Op: Searching the U.S. Patent Office website, there is an active trademark for the name “Washington Redskin Potatoes” for the purposes of Professional Football Contests. It was granted last October. It’s not clear if the trademark owner is affiliated with Snyder in any way, but if it is, he could, in effect, never change the name “Redskins” because it would be about food, not Native Americans.

Fun Fact: The Coca-Cola you still drink today has an ingredient simply called “Merchandise No. 5” that is manufactured in New Jersey by Stepan. No. 5 is extracted yearly from 100 metric tons of Peruvian imported coca leaves using an undisclosed process. The spent (and drug-free) coca leaves are then supplied to Coca-Cola, while the cocaine is sold to a pharmaceutical firm for “medicinal purposes.” Yes, the U.S. government and Food and Drug Administration are aware of these activities on U.S. soil. The facility is also heavily guarded. 

Justin Winkelman is a business consultant in the areas of strategic planning, business operations, and social media marketing and implementation.

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