Redskins Lose Trademark Protections, Chobani Sued for not being Greek, and LA Loses Legal Battle
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UPDATED: Mar 23, 2021
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The US Patent & Trademark Office weighs in on the ongoing debate over use of the name Washington Redskins, Chobani faces a hyper-literal lawsuit, and an LA prohibition on sleeping in vehicles is unconstitutionally vague.
Patent & Trademark Office Cancels Washington Redskins TrademarksThe US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) added its voice to the chorus of critics of the National Football League’s Washington DC based franchise’s use of the name Redskins by cancelling several of the organization’s trademarks. Finding that the name Washington Redskins is an insult to Native Americans, a three-judge panel at the PTO ruled 2-1 that the team moniker is no longer worthy of federal trademark protection. Holding that, “These registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered, in violation of Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act [which bars, in relevant part, registrations of marks that “may disparage… persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.]”
By taking away the trademark registration of the term Washington Redskins, the PTO’s decision has removed some of the protections that would enable the team ownership to rely on the US Government to either pursue unlawful infringement or to provide legal avenues for the team to sue for unauthorized use of the name and image. It is important to note, however, that the Redskins may still have legal recourse to sue for use of the formerly protected trademarks under other sections of state and federal trademark law. The process of protecting the use of the term Washington Redskins may have become more difficult, but the PTO’s decision does not mean that the Redskins name and images are no longer trademarked. Furthermore, the decision is sure to be appealed – further delaying a noticeable effect on the PTO’s judgment.
While the legal impact of the PTO’s decision to rescind some trademarks of the Washington Redskins is yet to be fully understood, the opinion is still significant in that it represents the most serious indictment of the continued use of the name. Although the team can still claim a protected trademark, the decision suggests that continued use of the name Redskins is increasingly vulnerable to political and public pressure demanding a name change. Even if the financial consequences of the PTO’s decision are unclear, the opinion can be considered a win for opponents of the NFL’s support for the continued use of the name Washington Redskins.
Chobani Greek Yogurt Sued for Not Being Greek
This week, a Manhattan law firm filed a lawsuit against Chobani, Inc. for falsely advertising its popular yogurt as being Greek. Filed in federal court, the lawsuit against Chobani alleges that the company has engaged in false advertising in order to deceive consumers about the quality and health benefits of its marquee product. The complaint specifically alleges, “Defendants purposefully market their Products as ‘Greek’ yogurt when there is nothing ‘Greek’ about the Products. None of the Products are made in Greece, or made by Greek nationals even though Defendants market themselves as ‘America’s Top Greek Yogurt.’”
Chobani responded by saying the claim without merit, and defending its use of the term Greek yogurt by comparing it to similar foods named after countries including Canadian bacon, English muffins, and French fries. Stating its customers understand that, “Greek yogurt is a product description about how we authentically make our yogurt and not about where we make our yogurt,” Chobani maintained that its product labeling is not misleading or in violation of any laws.
The lawsuit also claims that Chobani misleads its customers into thinking it is healthier than other Greek-style yogurt competitors because it is sweetened with “evaporated cane juice” – a healthier sounding euphemism for “sugar.” Again, Chobani officials were unconcerned, citing a similar claim that was dismissed by a federal judge in February because plaintiffs could not demonstrate that they couldn’t have known the true nature of evaporated cane juice.
9th Circuit Shoots Down LA Law Preventing Sleeping in Vehicles
The 9th Circuit has struck down a Los Angeles ordinance making it illegal to use a vehicle “as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise” because interpretation and enforcement of the law made it unclear what behavior was prohibited. Finding that police would cite or even arrest individuals for a variety of behavior – including eating in a vehicle or driving a loaded RV through town – the 9th Circuit determined that the “broad and cryptic statute criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct within the pale.”
The 9th Circuit’s ruling does not mean that it is impermissible to outlaw living in vehicles, rather, it means that this particular attempt by Los Angeles did not clearly identify what type of behavior constituted commission of a crime. The constitution requires laws to clearly identify what type of behavior is illegal, and the LA prohibition on living in vehicles fell well short of that standard.