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The NYPD has sued New Yorkers to protect its trademark logo.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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The complicated business of selling the NYPD logo

The city of New York is suing a Long Island woman for making NYPD T-shirts. But is it really about money or controlling the brand?

Sue Piccolo lives in Nassau County, out on western Long Island, but she’s loved the New York City Police Department all her life. She’s the biggest fan in the world of cops, and she’s been making NYPD T-shirts since 1982. Her husband Sal, a former city cop, joined her when he retired, and the pair opened the Cop Shop storefront in Massapequa, New York, in 2000. It’s primarily a uniform supply store for police officers and firefighters, but the front half of the store has a wild array of related merchandise that civilians can buy to show their support for the city agencies — onesies, greeting cards, stuffed dogs, toy trucks, coffee mugs, etc. The mix includes a lot of “Blue Lives Matter,” and “Firemen Are Heroes,” and entreaties not to forget 9/11.

Ten years after the Cop Shop opened, a lawyer named Gerald Singleton showed up and informed the couple that the city of New York wanted their sign down — it has the New York Police Department insignia front and center — and that the police commissioner at the time, Raymond Kelly, wanted it down too.

“My husband told the guy, ‘I wore this patch — if Commissioner Kelly wants the sign down, he can tell me to come take the sign down,’” Piccolo recalls. “Then all of a sudden, it just went out of control. This lawyer from the city, he kept going after us.”

The city also wants the Piccolos to stop using the NYPD insignia and initials on any kind of product whatsoever, and says that nearly every item in the Cop Shop violates its trademark registrations. After years of legal volleying, the Piccolos are set to hear a decision on City of New York v. The Cop Shop from US Magistrate Judge Anne Shields on May 16. Then they’ll go to court a second time in June — Sue Piccolo is suing the city’s lawyer Gerald Singleton for assault, after a run-in at the Nassau Coliseum that she declines to describe on the record. At this, she tears up. She pushes chunks of lavender hair out of her face and apologizes for the emotion, while a dozen keepsake Alex and Ani bracelets jingle up and down her arms and into the microphone.

“It’s very hard on myself and my family, because they could destroy me,” she adds.

To the Piccolos, the case is personal and specific. But it’s also, strangely, the most dramatic result so far of a debate that’s been happening for the past 20 years: Can a municipal agency — a body funded and operated by the citizens it serves — really hold the exclusive rights to its logo? Is your local police department … a brand?

Officially licensed NYPD merchandise is everywhere in New York. You can buy NYPD T-shirts and cropped sweatshirts at the British fashion brand Topshop’s SoHo store, or at Nordstrom — the logo is licensed by graphic apparel brand Tee & Cake, which also traffics in pocket tees and crop tops celebrating NASA, vegan pride, “happy daze,” “positive vibes,” Star Wars, Pepsi, croissant culture, and the Hamptons. The brand’s latest NYPD hoodie was posted to Instagram in April, captioned “Freeze!! You are arrested for loving our ‘NYPD Sweat’ so much!”

You can also, of course, buy them at virtually any street-side T-shirt stand or tourist shop, of which there are thousands. The shirts (and mugs and hats and novelty license plates) in those kiosks are mostly made by two of the city’s biggest licensees — the Secaucus, New Jersey-based manufacturer Torkia International and the Brooklyn-based New York Apparel Company.

Though products of this sort have been available from one source or another since at least the 1970s, the formal commercialization of American police departments is a relatively new phenomenon. The Los Angeles Police Department was the first city police agency to register its name, badge, and motto with the US Patent and Trademark Office. This was in 1998, and the city was inspired by the fact that the FBI and NSA both already held trademark registrations for their logos. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police did as well, and was regularly bringing in a couple million dollars a year in merchandise revenue, Canadian Mounties being a pretty strong brand and popular tourist interest.

At the time, the NYPD’s trademark was loosely held by the not-for-profit New York City Police Foundation and was selling only about $50,000 worth of merchandise. American police departments were extremely unpopular in the ’90s.

The city of Los Angeles was presumably aware that its public image had more in common with the city of New York’s than it did with Canada’s, and though it doubtless hoped to make some money from merch, the more obvious incentive for obtaining the trademark was legal protection from protest and parody. At the time, in a column titled “The Trick of Turning LAPD Blue Into Greenbacks,” LA Times reporter Patt Morrison mocked the city, writing, “The real money is always in questionable taste and black humor,” and referencing the “heavy-selling” protest T-shirts distributed after the 1991 police beating of Rodney King. (“LAPD — We Treat You Like a King.”)

Dean Hansell, the police commissioner in Los Angeles at the time, admitted that there was a “small First Amendment cloud on the entrepreneurial horizon.” And in the September 2001 edition of the Southern California Law Review, intellectual property and entertainment lawyer Michelle Fowler (now a vice president at Warner Bros.) argued that the trademarking of the LAPD logo represented a significant and dubiously useful expansion of trademark rights. The point of giving a business “a monopoly in its mark” (e.g., giving Coca-Cola a monopoly on soda sold in bottles shaped like Coca-Cola bottles) is to encourage “developments and improvements in [a] product or service.” This theoretically promotes competition in the marketplace, as well as more and better consumer choice. A classic government intervention to uphold a free capitalist market.

But giving a police department — or any municipal agency — a monopoly on its trademark does not serve that purpose. Fowler concedes that the LAPD does offer a service, but points out that it does not face competition. “There is no way for consumers to express pleasure or displeasure with police services through the market,” Fowler writes. “Consumers cannot refuse to pay for the services of the police department.”

Still, the application process moved forward, and the city of Los Angeles took hold of a variety of trademark registrations for the LAPD. Though it’s still fairly uncommon, other US police departments followed in the LAPD’s footsteps and filed for various trademark registrations. But few are using them to make merchandise. The Detroit Police Department filed an application in December 2017 to use its logo on T-shirts and homegoods, but most of the other cities that have filed for trademark rights to their police insignias have listed only “municipal services” or “police and civil protection services” as the intended commercial use. (This includes Omaha, Nebraska; Arlington, Texas; and, most recently, Cranberry Township, a wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh.)

With little fanfare, the New York City Fire Department and New York City Police Department’s trademarks were transferred to the city and registered with the PTO in November 2001.

The holiday shopping season in New York City in 2001 was all about NYPD and FDNY merchandise. And it did not take the city long to take note of the money swirling around, without direction, and into the hands of what it considered morbid opportunists.

In early December, the New York Times reported that the fire department was selling about $200,000 worth of merchandise a week in its two Manhattan stores. The Rockefeller Center store alone was making $24,000 worth of sales each day, up from $600 to $800 a day before the attacks on the World Trade Center. But the city claimed that official merchandise from the NYPD and FDNY represented “at best one-quarter of the market,” and the Times’s math estimated that “the departments together have lost $10 million or more in proceeds since September 11th.”

This led to a government panic over how to refocus consumers on sanctioned merchandise. The city hired a law firm and sent out 100 cease-and-desist letters to local manufacturers and vendors, according to the Times.

Fireman’s Friend, an FDNY souvenir store located above an old firehouse in lower Manhattan, was hit with a letter from the city’s lawyers, and owner Nate Freedman politely told the Times that he had written to the city 11 years prior when he opened the store, asking about the rules for selling FDNY goods. He had never heard back. In the few months since the World Trade Center attacks, he had donated about $100,000 to the families of firefighters who had been killed, and he told the paper that his son Noam’s NYPD-themed store had donated $37,000.

(The Freedmans now sell only licensed products, through a new website called NYC Firestore.)

Fire Zone Store at Bloomingdales
A holiday shopper in Bloomingdale’s Fire Zone Store in December 2001.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Piccolos are the first to take a trademark case with the city all the way to the end. The closest anyone had come before was Albert Elovitz in 2005, who was prepared to argue that the NYPD and FDNY letter logos and insignia shouldn’t be entitled to trademark protection. But he settled on the eve of the court date. Eliot Sash, a Law & Order bit actor who was sued by the city in 2016 for selling NYPD and FDNY merch on eBay, argued the same thing but also settled. He was arrested in 2002 for selling fake NYPD badges and was possibly aware that he was a less sympathetic defendant.

The city was, for better or worse, not very subtle about the way 9/11 affected the value of its trademarks. In the initial complaint against Elovitz, seven lawyers are listed as defending the city’s interests. “The goodwill and reputation associated with the FDNY Marks, and the public’s association of the FDNY Marks with the FDNY, have grown dramatically in the light of the tragic events of September 11, 2001,” the complaint reads. “The distinctive FDNY Marks are famous, and are among the best known trademarks and logos in the United States.” The suit demands that Elovitz turn over his profits, pay damages, and “deliver up for destruction” all remaining merchandise; he was alleged to have NYPD and FDNY keychains, hats, shorts, toys, magnets, pins, plates, shot glasses, mugs, and picture frames.

“It is important that everyone understand that NYPD items have been legitimately sold for many, many years,” Elovitz told a firefighter-related interest site in April 2004. “I sold on the streets of New York and wore holes into my shoes to build this business. And now, 10 years later, they just want me to cave in and give it to them. It is just not fair.”

Two months later, the nonprofit NYC Marketing was designated the city’s exclusive licensing agent, and began coordinating with the city’s legal department to enforce the trademarks even more aggressively. During the Thanksgiving Day parade in 2006, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the successful creation of the official NYPD and FDNY brands with an unveiling of a new online store. (Shortly after, NYC Marketing was folded into NYC & Company, which took over the licensing program and still runs it now.)

In the early to mid-aughts, the NYPD logo caused trouble even hundreds of miles outside of Manhattan. One of the odder cases the city’s lawyers pursued was against a chain of novelty restaurants in Florida called NYPD Pizza (New York Pizzeria Delicatessen Pizza), which had opened its first location in Orlando in 1996. The logo looked like an NYPD badge, the checks looked like police summons, and the restaurants were designed to look like police stations. After three years of back-and-forth, NYPD Pizza was forced to redesign its logo and promise never to do business in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. Paul Browne, deputy commissioner at the time, told the Guardian, “Any way you slice it, there’s only one NYPD — and it’s not on a menu.”

The city also warned retired cops all over the country not to use the NYPD shield on club websites or T-shirts, or to display it anywhere in any way. By 2010, the city announced that it had sent 600 cease-and-desist letters and recouped the cost of setting up the licensing program. “Annual retail licensing sales now exceed $24 million,” a tourism report stated. “The wonderful work that the NYPD and FDNY does, at tremendous risk to those performing the tasks, shines a positive light on the City and is an integral part of its branding.”

In 2019, NYC & Company’s director of communications Alyssa Schmid insists that the NYPD cares about “all forms of knockoff merchandise” and defends the city’s NYPD logo the way it would defend, say Mickey Mouse. “The city monitors Times Square and Canal Street for the sale of counterfeit merchandise and will take action against T-shirt stalls and street vendors who are found to be selling counterfeit NYPD T-shirts and other merchandise.”

Ice-T wearing a T-shirt protesting the LAPD at Lollapalooza in July 1992.
Jay Blakesberg/Retna LTD

Last summer, the Piccolos attempted to subpoena information on the city’s revenue from the NYPD and FDNY logos, as well as records of how much of that money was going to the agencies’ respective nonprofits. Sue Piccolo says her husband just wanted to know where all the money was ending up, and that if they would just tell him, he’d “cut a deal” and let the issue rest. The judge quashed this motion, and the Piccolos continued. They insist that the city does not have an exclusive right to the insignias or acronym logos, and that their products don’t actually use these marks as trademarks.

They’re not selling this merchandise by putting anyone under the illusion that it comes directly from the NYPD or the FDNY, Piccolo says. She points out to me side-by-side racks of identical T-shirts with masking tape labels on them indicating where they stand in the eyes of the law: licensed merchandise with a holographic hang tag indicating the city of New York as the source, or unlicensed merchandise without it.

“Some of them are what they call counterfeit, and some are the licensed ones. Here we have both,” she says. “We have our shirts and their shirts. We separated them.” In her office, a 4-by-6-inch piece of printer paper taped to the wall reads, “Some of the various NYPD and FDNY products sold in this store are sold as a decoration and not a brand.”

Gerald Singleton, the intellectual property and entertainment lawyer who’s been representing the city in trademark disputes for the past 12 years, provides a different argument.

“The city’s position is that they are infringing the FDNY and NYPD trademarks,” he says over the phone. “They sell licensed apparel, and they also sell a lot of things they make themselves. We’ve been pursuing them for years.”

As for the assault charge, which was also filed with the New York Bar Association, Singleton brings it up without prompting when I mention that I’ve already seen the Cop Shop and don’t need it described to me. (“Didn’t Mrs. Piccolo tell you I assaulted her or something?”) “I don’t think the court is going to put much stock in it, but we’ll see where that goes.”

Singleton describes his tenure with the city as a steady upward slope in the direction of progress. Over the years, he’s shut down street vendors and factories, working “closely with the police department in going after people.” On the strips of tourist shops in Midtown and lower Manhattan, there’s an unspoken respect between salespeople and the city’s lawyer, he tells me proudly. (“If you were with me and we were walking around Canal Street, you would see that a lot of vendors know me. They recognize me from over the years.”) The Piccolos are the first to push a lawsuit this far, so while the city was not initially asking for any damages, the amount it’s asking for now could “probably put them out of business.”

“It was not my goal,” Singleton says. “If [Sal Piccolo] had stopped selling, we wouldn’t have pursued a claim for damages. But he refuses to stop. I don’t know, I find that retired cops can be more arrogant and think they can do things other people can’t.” He says he is very confident the city will prevail in the case.

The Piccolos’ attorney Gerard Dunne obviously disagrees. Using the NYPD logo on a coffee mug or a baseball is not a trademark use, he tells me. The Piccolos aren’t making their own labels or hang tags that falsely identify their merchandise as official, and “You’re not buying a coffee mug because you think the city of New York is selling it; you’re buying it because it says NYPD on it.”

This argument has some precedent in the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan, where knockoff concert T-shirts have been ruled legal so long as vendors don’t deliberately mislead customers into thinking that Justin Bieber is selling ugly $5 shirts hundreds of feet away from his venue. This case would, if the Piccolos won, set a similar precedent in the Eastern District, which includes Brooklyn and Long Island.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, my god, this is so slam-dunk for us,” Dunne tells me. “I wouldn’t do the case otherwise.” He believes the judge is taking her time because she knows the city will appeal a loss and fight to have the law changed.

Though Singleton implies to me that lawyers who take on these cases are con artists, sucking attorney fees out of people who don’t have a case, Dunne says he’s representing the Piccolos pro bono. He apologizes multiple times for yelling at me on the phone. “The reason the city has been successful in these cases is because nobody can afford to challenge them,” he argues. “Everybody folds when the city comes after them for these kinds of things. It’s the city of New York. What are you gonna do?”

Sue Piccolo says the same thing, standing in the front of her store, throwing up two hands with immaculate highlighter-orange square-tip acrylics. “They’re the city of New York — and I don’t want to piss people off — but they don’t have to answer to anybody,” she says. “It’s just a damn T-shirt. It doesn’t matter. But you know that phrase, ‘Can’t fight City Hall’?”

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