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Topps and Upper Deck could be back in court soon ...

In last week’s issue of SCD (Feb. 12), I wrote a feature article about 1963 Fleer Baseball cards, and somewhere in the middle of the undertaking realized that I was seeing similarities to the current licensing situation involving Upper Deck, Topps and Major League Baseball.

After Fleer launched its first attempt at a mainstream MLB card set in 1963, Topps promptly took them to court claiming that the cards violated Topps exclusive contracts with the individual players. The court agreed and 1963 Fleer was finished after a single series, and the playing field – metaphorically speaking – was abandoned to Topps alone for nearly another two decades.

Now obviously any such comparisons are inexact by definition, but there are eerie parallels between the two situations. With the 2010 version of Upper Deck Baseball expected to hit the streets within a couple of weeks, the almost complete radio silence from Carlsbad, Calif. about what it’s going to look like prompts the following bit of speculation.

With Topps now the exclusive licensee for MLB, Upper Deck was faced with the daunting prospect of figuring out how to produce a card set that doesn’t run afoul of restrictions on the use of team logos, colors and insignias, etc. While Upper Deck officials have been mum on the subject, and visits to the company’s website offer no hint about what the cards will look like, it’s at least possible Upper Deck’s “solution” could end up being responsible for all this nostalgia about 47 years earlier.

Under the assumption that 2010 Upper Deck Baseball will portray MLB players in some fashion in their regular uniforms – perhaps with some nominal airbrushing of logos here and there to provide some legal fodder for a defense – it would seem that Topps (and MLB) might quickly file suit and set the ball rolling for a rough-and-tumble tangle in the courts between the two archrivals.

This speculation – and that’s all it really is – fits well with the paucity of information available about 2010 Upper Deck product thus far. If the idea is to get the cards out there and significantly distributed before Topps legal talent can rain on their parade, Upper Deck’s handling of this precarious topic over the last several months makes perfect sense.