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Sport, Shirt Fight Over ‘Polo’ Name

June 15, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ There’s big trouble in Brand-Name City. Trouble with a capital ``P″ _ or maybe a small ``p″ _ and that spells ``polo.″

The word has meant many things over the years _ sport, attitude, shirt, fragrance. Now a dispute between Ralph Lauren’s fashion house and a long-established magazine has made it a lawsuit as well.

At issue: Whether a redesign by Polo Magazine, a journal for the horsy sport, has turned it into an upscale fashion-lifestyle periodical whose name capitalizes on _ and competes with _ Lauren’s popular Polo products.

``It’s just audacious. He’s trying to co-opt the name for himself,″ says Tom Godbold, the attorney representing Dallas-based Westchester Media, which purchased the 23-year-old Polo Magazine last year.

The issue grows ever more pressing in these days of omnipresent consumerism. Where does the language end and the brand name begin? And, given that companies have valid interests in safeguarding their brand names, what is reasonable protection and what is advertising run amok?

Usually, these things happen the other way; brand names often creep into the lowercase lexicon. Aspirin used to be a trademark. Dumpster, Rollerblade and Xerox still are.

But this is the reverse. Polo was a game long before it was a shirt, and the Lauren products themselves _ some were once advertised in the magazine _ rely on the now-familiar logo of a polo player atop a horse.

Last month, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. sent the magazine a letter asking that it give up the name. The magazine responded with a lawsuit and Lauren countersued. A trial is scheduled for December.

When the lawsuits were filed, the company refused comment. On Friday, a Lauren spokesman and spokeswoman were out of the office for the weekend and no one else was available.

In its countersuit, the company said it trademarked the term POLO for apparel a decade ago. It said the $6 magazine, as redone, shifted its focus from sport to ``sophisticated fashions and elegant lifestyles″ to compete for business from Lauren customers.

Lauren says the publisher sent copies of the first redesigned issue last fall to customers of Neiman Marcus, a major Polo Ralph Lauren retailer, and featured Claudia Schiffer, who has modeled Lauren fashions, on the cover. Later covers featured model Stephanie Seymour and Britain’s polo-playing Prince Charles.

Such situations aren’t new. All things Elvis are guarded zealously by trademarks. A Dutch businessman has trademarked terms like ``Route 66,″ ``Wall Street″ and ``yellow cab″ in European countries to profit on interest in Americana, though he has obtained no such licenses within the United States.

Then, of course, there was Groucho Marx. In 1946, threatened with a lawsuit by ``Casablanca″ maker Warner Bros. for his comedy ``A Night in Casablanca,″ he wasted no time putting umbrage to paper.

``I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers,″ he wrote. ``I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo.″

Then Groucho petulantly claimed the term ``Bros.″ for himself and his brethren. The Warners eventually went away.

Polo Ralph Lauren’s maneuver isn’t earning the company many friends among polo aficionados. On one Internet polo site, a cacophony is calling for Polo to get off its high horse. Many want a boycott.

``Somebody needs to take a mallet to his ego,″ wrote one polo fan. ``Are chaps going to be renamed next?″ said another. Wrote a third: ``The corporate logo, for all intents and purposes, has taken precedent over the will of the people or the common good.″

``Polo dates back to Persia thousands of years ago. For him to claim he’s got a lock on the word polo is a little ridiculous,″ said Chuck Elmes, president of Blue Sky Polo Club in Middletown, N.Y. ``The ambience of polo has made him a multimillionaire, and he’s slapping the hand that feeds him.″

Monika Laws of the New York City-based International Trademark Association sees both sides and blames a public ill-educated about brand names. ``Trademark owners don’t distinguish,″ she said. ``They see their mark as their mark.″

Then there was lawyer Richard Dooling, who wrote an op-ed column for The New York Times last week about the brouhaha. Mocking Lauren, he carefully referred to polo as ``pxxx.″

``The Association for members with an upscale life style hereafter shall be referred to as the United States Horse-Hockey Association,″ he wrote. ``The association for lower-class, ill-bred sorts of members may still be called the United States Pxxx Association, but only by lower-class, ill-bred members, who may use the Pxxx name without causing people to view Pxxx as a product of Ralph Lauren.″

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