America’s mail carrier is far more than her trucks, post offices, and 600,000-strong workforce.
The U.S. Postal Service boasts an instantly recognizable brand protected by a thicket of trademarks, copyrights, and even mail-sorting-related patents. While the agency has had some success turning this intellectual property (IP) into a cash cow, a series of unforced errors have limited the financial gains realized from this potential treasure trove. These IP blunders have cost the Postal Service dearly, adding to the already-colossal losses facing the beleaguered agency. USPS can help avert billions of dollars in added net losses through a carefully calibrated IP strategy that brings in beaucoup bucks for the brand.
For the past few years, USPS clothing collaborations have been all the rage. The branding renaissance started in 2019 when the agency launched a partnership with the clothing company Forever 21. Yellow hoodies emblazoned with the word “Priority” in front and a shipping label in the back were suddenly seen on street corners (and postal policy think tanks) across the country.
In 2021, the shoe company Vans released postal-inspired kicks, which quickly sold out. USPS continued its collaboration spree in 2022 with another shoe-related partnership, this time with the Japanese brand A Bathing Ape. Not all of these agency ventures started out smoothly. Nike attracted the ire of postal officials by designing their shoes with art purportedly resembling Priority Mail shipping boxes and ultimately settled with the agency for an undisclosed sum. The Postal Service and its lawyers publicly shamed Nike with the understandable goal of keeping its IP profitable.
The agency has been less diligent in safeguarding its IP outside the apparel space. When the indie pop band called the Postal Service recorded “Such Great Heights” in the early 2000s, USPS sent a cease-and-desist letter (alleging trademark infringement) to the band’s label.
After negotiation, America’s mail carrier agreed to leave the band alone if the musicians agreed to cross-promote the postal brand. The agency raised the prospect of the Postal Service licensing their music for future USPS commercials, an idea that the band readily bought into. The band also agreed to perform at the postmaster general’s 2004 National Executive Conference and allowed the agency to sell band merch on their website. USPS used the band’s song “Such Great Heights” in a 2007 agency commercial, but besides that one-off, the agency has not exactly gotten rich off the partnership. Had the agency insisted on collecting trademark royalties, it could have profited from the band’s million-plus album sales and upcoming joint tour with Death Cab for Cutie.
In addition to underutilizing its own IP, USPS has been reckless in ripping off others’ work. The agency made the fateful mistake in 2010 of releasing a Statue of Liberty stamp featuring the likeness of a Las Vegas replica instead of the real deal. NPR’s Clare Lombardo noted that “a stamp development manager at the time started by gathering stock images of the Statue of Liberty — all possibilities for the new stamp. But he didn’t realize that his final choice was not, in fact, a photograph of the national monument.”
The error proved costly. The Las Vegas statue’s sculptor sued USPS for copyright infringement. And in 2018, the agency had to cough up $3.5 million to the rightful IP holder. Unfortunately, this was not the agency’s first sloppy infringement. USPS similarly snubbed the sculptor of the Korean War Memorial despite using the memorial’s image on a 2003 postage stamp. The sculptor took his case to court and won $540,000 from the agency. These judgments may seem like small potatoes to an $80 billion organization, but years of damages add up … along with lawyer’s fees.
America’s mail carrier has plenty of opportunities to capitalize on its IP and collaborate with artists and creators at a reasonable price. The agency must avoid missteps to keep its cherished brand afloat.
• Ross Marchand is a nonresident fellow at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.