Washington Redskins, Lady Antebellum – 2020’s Effect on Trademarks

Washington Redskins, Lady Antebellum – 2020’s Effect on Trademarks

We can all agree that 2020 has been unprecedented. Most of the world continues to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Over fifty percent of US office workers continue to work from home. Dozens of US cities have experienced transformative protests against racial inequality. As of the date of this article, we’re only a little more than halfway through the year!

2020 has taken its toll on famous trademarks too.  Two of the most notable examples are the Washington Redskins and Lady Antebellum.

Washington Redskins

The NFL’s Washington Redskins have faced trademark troubles for almost thirty years.  In 1992, prominent Native Americans challenged the Washington Redskins trademark registration claiming that it was disparaging. A seven-year legal battle ensued, with the United States Patent and Trademark Office ultimately canceling the Washington Redskins trademark registration in 1999 “on the grounds that the subject marks may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute.” The Redskins appealed the USPTO’s decision and persuaded a federal district court to reverse the cancellation.

In 2006 a petition was filed to cancel six trademarks held by the team. Legal proceedings for this matter lasted eight years.  In 2014 the USPTO canceled the Redskins’ marks, stating that the term “redskins” is disparaging to a “substantial composite of Native Americans”.  A complicated series of appeals followed, with the matter ultimately ending up before the United States Supreme Court.  In 2017 the Court ruled that the portion of the federal trademark statute prohibiting the registration of disparaging marks was unconstitutional, and once again the Redskins had their trademark rights restored.

The Washington NFL team has now announced that it will no longer use the name “Redskins”, citing mounting public pressure (including from its biggest sponsors) to drop the name. The team has not, however, announced what its new name will be. Numerous sources have reported that the team’s desired replacement name tied up in a “trademark fight”. So, while it appears certain that 2020 will mark the end of the team’s use of its Redskins registered trademarks, it is evident that the team’s trademark issues are far from over.

Lady Antebellum

2020 has also brought unexpected trademark troubles for country music stars Lady A (formerly known as Lady Antebellum).  The Grammy Award-winning group shortened its name in response to the recent George Floyd protests in an effort to dissociate the band’s name from slavery and the Antebellum South. Unfortunately, the name “Lady A” has been in use by Seattle blues singer Anita White for more than 20 years.

Lady A (the group) contacted Lady A (the singer) to apologize for co-opting her name and initiate discussions around allowing both parties to use the Lady A name in association with their musical endeavors. After Ms. White proposed that the band pay a $10 million fee for the use of the Lady A trademark (half to go to her and half to charity), the negotiations broke down.

The band has filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to affirm its right to use the Lady A trademark. The group is not seeking money from Ms. White. The band holds three United States trademark registrations for Lady A, which were issued in 2011. Thanks to the events of 2020, the future of the Lady A trademark is very much up in the air.

Conclusion

There are lessons to be learned from these two situations that apply to all businesses. First, consult with a trademark professional before settling on a name. Experienced trademark attorneys can identify potential problems in advance that can save you lots of time, headaches, and dollars. Second, make sure that a comprehensive trademark search is part of your overall strategy. I can’t overstate the importance of understanding the trademark landscape before choosing a brand.