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It’s that time of year again — college students are back on campus. It’s also the busy season for college- and university- licensed merchandise, from hoodies to umbrellas. The collegiate merchandise market takes in $4.6 billion in annual sales. That’s up from $2.9 billion 10 years ago. And the revenue from those licenses is fiercely protected. 

Mary Cesar of Mary's Cakes and Pastries

Mary Cesar of Mary’s Cakes and Pastries

Mary Cesar owns a small bakery in Northport near the University of Alabama campus. There’s a lot of school spirit in the cookies and cakes she sells: houndstooth hats, for the hat legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant wore; elephant heads and bodies for the school’s mascot, Big Al

Cesar also sells cookies with a script “A” on them, some with the phrase “Roll Tidel.” It wasn’t a problem until a few years ago, when the university sent her a cease and desist letter.  

“I was in shock,” Cesar says. “I mean I truly was like, ‘Holy crap,’ excuse the expression.” 

Those cookies and cakes, the university said, had to be licensed. It was a week away from football season, and Cesar didn’t want a long, drawn out legal battle. So in a few days the matter was settled: she bought a license.

You need a license to sell these.

Susan Alessandri, who teaches advertising at Suffolk University, says the stronger a school’s brand, the more people want to see it on everything.

“But also the bigger brands, say the University of Alabama, they have the resources to go after offenders,” Alessandri says, “and they’re going to.”

Cory Moss, senior vice president and managing director at Collegiate Licensing Company, says brand protection is the cornerstone of what CLC does. And to him, it’s clear cut. Take a T-shirt that says “Alabama.”

“Is it in crimson, is it sold around other Alabama product, would an average consumer look at that product and say, ‘That’s referencing the University of Alabama’?” he asks.

CLC trolls the Internet for people selling unlicensed merchandise. Moss calls them counterfeiters. Selling unlicensed items, he says, robs universities of revenue that goes toward scholarships and athletic programs.

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