This topic came up during a recent stroll through the mall with my fiancee. We noticed a store billing itself as U.S. Polo Assn. Their products appeared to be preppy-style casual clothing for men and women, with a prominent logo featuring two polo players on horseback. Where have I seen something like this before?

It turns out the U.S. Polo Assn. isn’t related to Ralph Lauren at all. Instead, this brand is the licensing arm of the actual U.S. Polo Association, dating back to 1890. Yes, kids, before Polo was a brand, polo was a sport. I won’t link to their site, uspolo.org, because it currently opens up a promo video with annoying music. Web designers, please don’t have your website play any sound unless the viewer actively clicks something to make it happen – I thought the entire Internet community agreed on that rule back in about 1997. But I digress…

So, it seems that about 30 years ago, the USPA, as I like to call it, decided to start offering branded goods for sale. Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand had launched back in 1967. In 1984, a Federal court held that the USPA could produce licensed goods as long as they were not branded in such a way that they would be likely to cause confusion with Ralph Lauren’s famous Polo brand. As my regular reader will know, likelihood of confusion is the chief issue in most trademark questions.

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It seems that the USPA has, in recent years, expanded its branding and licensing in ways that have brought it closer to conflict with the RL brands. One such issue came to a head a few years ago, when the USPA began producing U.S. Polo Assn. branded perfume. Among many other products, Ralph Lauren is well-known for its line of Polo perfumes. RL brought suit, and the same Federal court ruled in 2011 that the USPA’s product infringed on Ralph Lauren’s trademarks.

Currently, the U.S. Polo Assn. website doesn’t feature any perfume products. It’s unclear whether they will try to repackage the products in such a way as to attempt to avoid infringing on Ralph Lauren’s marks, or whether they will abandon the perfume market altogether.

Considering the larger questions for a moment – shouldn’t the U.S. Polo Association be able to use the word “Polo” and related terms and images on products? A fashion designer picked that word for his products, and designed a logo featuring a polo player. Does that mean that the USPA should have lost some group of rights that it presumably held? Can I go out and start a fashion line under the brand name David Lizerbram Baseball, and then turn around and prevent Major League Baseball from exploiting the name and imagery of their sport?

As to the latter question, the answer is certainly “No.” MLB already produces and licenses a huge array of consumer products. Back when Ralph first picked the sport of polo as his sartorial inspiration, the USPA seems not to have been engaged in product creation or licensing at all. They were, you know, a bunch of people riding horses and hitting balls with mallets (that is the sum of everything I know about the sport of polo, so don’t ask me anything else).

For the most part, RL’s products have little or no connection to the sport itself. Polo aftershave has as much to do with the sport of polo as an apple (meaning, the fruit) has with Apple Computers. RL expended vast quantities of time and money convincing consumers that the word “Polo” connoted a desirable product and lifestyle brand.

Furthermore, RL didn’t compete with the USPA in their core business – he didn’t try to set up a polo association. He took an existing word and used it as a brand in innovative ways. That’s exactly what a large proportion of trademark owners do (the exception being those who create new words entirely).

Back when RL was getting started, the USPA could have acted more swiftly to stake their claim in the word “polo.” Instead, they waited for about 15 years to begin exploiting their brand name. It looks like they’re now trying to make up for lost time, and it will be interesting to see if this will lead to future conflicts between the two brands. For now, just remember: one polo player equals Ralph Lauren; two polo players equals the U.S. Polo Association, and three polo players means the product is probably a knockoff of both brands at once.

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