In an extremely rare move, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has cancelled the trademarks associated with the Washington Redskins, one of the leading National Football League teams.

The cancellation is important to small business owners who often file for their own trademarks, because it illustrates how careful they must be in setting up their logos and brand imagery. In the Redskins' case, the trademark, apart from being an old one, is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket and merchandise sales. 

Specifically, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that the trademark violates a provision of the Trademark Act of 1946, which "prohibits registration of marks that may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute."

The cancellation does not require the Redskins to stop using the name Redskins, says Paul Llewellyn, co-head of law firm Kaye Scholer’s trademark, copyright, and false advertising group.

"The decision only relates to the right to a federal registration, and not to whatever common law rights may exist as a result of use of the name," Llewellyn says.

This is the second time the USPTO has made such a ruling in response to complaints about the Redskins trademark, brought most recently by five Native Americans. The first ruling, in 1992, was overturned by U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which sided with the football team based on a lack of evidence of disparagement, and on the principle of "laches." Laches is a jurisprudence term of art that essentially means an unreasonable delay in seeking a legal remedy.

The Redksins also claimed laches in the most recent case,  which had a March hearing, according to the USPTO.

The judgement cancels six trademarks associated with the Redskins franchise, owned by billionaire entrepreneur Dan Snyder. The team's value is estimated by Forbes to be $1.7 billion, placing it third behind the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots. 

"The take-away for business owners is clear: Think carefully, when selecting business names and marks, about any potential racial, ethnic or similar connotations, and avoid any name or mark that could be interpreted as offensive to a particular group," Llewellyn says.

Published on: Jun 18, 2014