NEW YORK- The city on Monday accused a popular marketer of police and firefighter merchandise of infringing its trademarks.
Two lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Manhattan claimed that companies owned by Noam Freedman were selling unauthorized products carrying the New York Police Department and Fire Department of New York labels, "NYPD" and "FDNY," at two lower Manhattan stores.
The lawsuits demanded that the companies, Finest Bravest & Boldest Inc. and New York Firefighter's Friend Inc., be forced to stop selling the merchandise in the stores and on the Internet and be ordered to pay unspecified damages.
Freedman said in an interview that he was disappointed the city had decided to attack a business that opened in 1991, when the city did not actively market the kind of merchandise that ballooned in popularity nationwide after Sept. 11, 2001.
"Going after a family business with our history should be humiliating for them," he said.
He said he called the fire department in 1991, asked if it had a licensing program and was told it did not.
"They said it sounded like a good idea and wished us luck," he said. "We created the field."
Initially, the only customers were firefighters - until word got out. Eventually, there were senators and congressmen, mayors and deputy commissioners, even professional baseball players among customers, he said.
In 1996, he opened a store specializing in police merchandise and endured difficult years when the police were unpopular. The store's windows were smashed, graffiti was scrawled on the sidewalk and telephone insults were common, he recalled.
He said the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, in which hundreds of firefighters and police officers died, "put an end to open hostility" and scores of people were soon lined down the block and around the corner.
The city's lawsuits noted the long lines outside Freedman's stores after the terrorist attack and said they resulted from consumers' mistaken beliefs that the merchandise was licensed or authorized by the city.
The lawsuits said the notion was reinforced by Freedman's selling licensed NYPD and FDNY merchandise alongside his own and the close proximity to a firehouse on Lafayette Street.
Freedman said he was careful not to take advantage of the Sept. 11 attack.
"We knew a number of people who died that day," he said. "We made money, but a fraction of what was available to us."
He said the stores donated $250,000 to a variety of charities and institutions, including police and firefighter organizations and a burn center.
He said he believes he has prior-use rights to the trademarks because he operated for seven years before the city first contacted him, 10 years before he received a cease-and-desist letter and nearly 15 years before the lawsuits.
Although he had negotiated with the city for several years over the fire department trademarks, he said, he had never heard from anyone about the police merchandise until Monday.
"In all sincerity, I don't think I should be paying a penny," he said.
He said he would countersue and litigate the issues for the next five years if he had more money to take on City Hall.
Instead, he said, "I'd like to just settle this and make this go away."
Meanwhile, he said, sales of merchandise have fallen to levels similar to before Sept. 11, 2001, partly because the rest of the country has moved on to other interests and because numerous stores sell similar merchandise now.
He said he found the lawsuit ironic because the city's fire museum bought his shirts when it ran out and the mayor's office called after Sept. 11 to inquire about NYPD and FDNY windbreakers for ground zero officials, though it bought them elsewhere.