In a surprise move following their cancellation of the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Buffalo Bills’ trademark registration, following complaints the Bills’ name discriminates against those named Bob, Dan and Joe.
Trademarks that discriminate against those with other names and hurt people’s feelings are not permitted under newly updated federal laws. The additional ruling Wednesday pertains to all trademarks of the NFL team using the word “Bills.”
While the ruling doesn’t preclude the team from using the Bills’ name and logo, it opens the door for outside sellers to sell Bills merchandise without paying royalties to the team or the NFL. Merchandise royalties are shared among NFL teams, except for the Dallas Cowboys, according to ESPN, which is also facing a challenge to its name brought by a Montana sorority “Daughters of the Cowgirls.”
Groups such as the “Brotherhood of Bob’s,” “Fraternal Order of Dan’s” and the “Knights of Joe’s” have fought the football team and its owners for the last 5 years to change the name. The team has consistently affirmed its refusal to change the name, including now dead owner Ralph Wilson telling the Cheektowaga Penny Saver newspaper in 2013, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER…you can use caps.”
Willie Stroker, the Bills’ trademark attorney, said Wednesday the team will, like the Redskins, appeal the 2-to-1 board decision in federal court. The trademark will be maintained during the process.
“We are confident we will prevail and maintain the rights to the Buffalo Bills’ name” Stroker said, citing a 1999 ruling by the board to cancel the Washington Redskins’ mark that was overturned in 2009 in a U.S. District Court ruling that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to file the lawsuit.
“We’ve seen this story before,” Stroker said. “And today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Bills’ name and logo.”
The dissenter on the appeals board, judge Chris P. Bacon, said that whatever the feelings about the Bills’ name today, the appeals board was supposed to be ruling about whether the trademarks were viewed as discriminating against Bob’s, Dan’s and Joe’s at the time they were registered. He noted that years ago, the trademarks weren’t viewed that way, but times change, people are more sensitive today and he can understand how anyone named Bob, Dan or Joe may feel sad and feel unwelcome when attending a Bills’ home game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The “Loyal Order of Ralph’s” were asked to join the Bob’s, Dan’s and Joe’s in this federal trademark complaint, but refused after noting the Bills’ home stadium is named after a “Ralph.”
In May, 50 U.S. senators, who obviously have no other important issues to deal with like the Veterans Administration disgrace, unemployment or $4 per gallon gas, urged the NFL to endorse a name change for the Bills, calling it an insult to all people not named Bill, especially those named Bob, Dan or Joe.
In a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the lawmakers said the league should follow the example of the NCAA, which urged the Orangemen of Syracuse University to change their name to “Orange,” even though orange trees cannot grow in Upstate New York because of its climate. Lawmakers said, it’s irrelevant oranges cannot grow there, plenty of oranges are available at super markets like Wegman’s and the new name is appropriate in Syracuse, a city which gets more annual snow fall than any other large city in the Empire State.
“We urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message as the NCAA did, that making people feel sad has no place in sports,” wrote the senators, all of them Democrats or independents. “It’s time for the NFL to endorse a name change for the Buffalo, New York football team.”
Even President Barack Obama weighed in, saying that if he owned the Buffalo Bills, which are for sale, he would consider changing the name, saying, “The Buffalo Tapioca has a nice sound.”
Bob Katz, who describes himself as life long Bob, said people should not profit from discriminating against those unfortunate enough to be named something other than Bill. The patent office determined he and the others filing the petition really felt bad, concluding people like Katz had a personal stake in the outcome.
A Bills’ spokesman said, “The team name captures the best of those named Bill and displays what those of other names should aspire to be. We will stay true to the 54 year history of the team and honor the deep and enduring values those named Bill represent.”
Other sports teams, from the professional ranks to grade schools, have names derived from traditional American names, but few have received more scrutiny or backlash than the Buffalo Bills.
The St. Louis Blues of the NHL have avoided much of the controversy surrounding teams like the Bills. “The Blues’ name is a color and refers not to a single man or a sad emotion, but to a color representative of the sky. Blue contains a cool vibration that is helpful in communication, its vibration can be used to open blocked energy flow. We have little risk of offending any group. Except maybe those with red hair,” according to a team spokesperson.