To appreciate Donald Trump’s latest indignity, it helps to understand the two types of licensing agreements governing corporate names.
In the first case, a company pays to have its name attached to some product or place. So it is that the baseball park where the Chicago White Sox play is now called Guaranteed Rate Field and will be until 2029. The White Sox get money; Guaranteed Rate gets exposure. Everyone wins (except the fans). In the second, an organization gets paid to lend its name. That was the unusual agreement that Barcelona FC struck with UNICEF, a reversal of the usual soccer sponsorship deal, in which the team paid the charity for the privilege of having its name appear on players’ jerseys.
The Trump Organization, an infernal mirror of UNICEF, has long operated according to the second model. For decades, the Trump name was sold as canned opulence to be slathered on everything from sunglasses to steaks to custom wood flooring.
And, of course, buildings. In New York , the condo board of Trump Place, which once paid Trump $1 to use his name—in big, gold letters—has decided there is significant interest in ditching the moniker (which has already come down from several neighboring properties). The Trump Organization, which manages the building, argued its removal would be a breach of the 2000 licensing agreement.
On Thursday, a judge ruled in the condo board’s favor, arguing that the licensing agreement was of the second variety—not the first. The condo board was paying Trump for the right to use the name, not getting paid for the obligation. Trump Organization lawyers had argued the contract meant the building had to keep the name.
“That simply is not what the document says,” the judge noted. She did add, though, that removing the Trump name would be tantamount to renaming the two-pronged tower and would require two-thirds of its more than 250 owners to sign on.
The ruling appears to set a precedent for other owners who bought into the Trump mystique and would now like to buy out. Trump’s name has already come off hotels in Toronto (by mutual agreement) and Panama City (where a small war has been waged between the Trump Organization and the owners of the yonic seaside palace that bore his name).
Trump’s reputation as a builder was inflated by his company’s extensive licensing agreements, which put the president’s name on projects from Buenos Aires to Istanbul. Today’s ruling marks the moment when the Trump name officially shifted from being firmly in the category of brands that increase value to, at least in some cases, a brand that might have to pay for exposure.
That said, liberal commentators have often been too eager to pronounce the decline of the Trump brand. The reality is, among plutocrats in the developing world, the Trump brand’s aura does not seem diminished by its connection to the current U.S. president. Even in the fortress of America’s liberal intelligentsia that is the Upper West Side, a February 2017 poll of the condo owners in Trump Place found just 63 percent in favor of removing the sign.
According to today’s ruling, they’ll need to hit two-thirds. Any further votes would be heavily scrutinized, Trump Organization lawyer Lawrence Rosen gleefully announced. “Democracy, in this particular condominium … requires a 66 2/3% vote.”