By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
To Douglas F. Carlson , his complaint with the U.S. Postal Service is no Mickey Mouse issue.
With regulatory and jurisdictional issues at stake over the pricing of special Disney postal stationery, Carlson, an attorney and stamp aficionado in California, has asked the Postal Rate Commission to look into the price of the stamped stationery.
Carlson's complaint centers on the Postal Service selling sheets of paper that can be folded into envelopes, sealed and mailed, for $14.95 a dozen. Each sheet is imprinted with a 37-cent "Art of Disney: Friendship" stamp. (And because of a recent increase in postal rates, the latest editions include 12 2-cent stamps.)
The cost of the package, far above the $4.68 face value of the stamps, outraged Carlson, who has filed other cases -- and won them -- against the Postal Service. The commission, in agreeing to hear the case, will look at whether the stamped stationery should be regarded as a postal service -- and thus be regulated by the commission, which effectively sets postal rates and mail classifications.
"I'm always focused on whether the Postal Service follows its own regulations as well as applicable statutes," said Carlson. "I want them to do what they are supposed to do. This looks like a postal service. If they are the exclusive provider of a public service, then there is a strong public interest and statutory obligation for regulation."
This case is bring watched by collectors and consumer advocates because it goes to the heart of what qualifies as a traditional, regulated postal service.
Generally, the commission does not get involved with pricing of products that are considered part of the stamp-collecting world or products for which there is competition -- such as packaging materials.
But it has to decide what falls under the definition of a postal service that is "incidental to the receipt, transmission or delivery by the Postal Service of correspondence, including, but not limited to, letters, printed matter and like materials."
The Postal Service said the stationery is not a postal product because it is a collectible, is printed on superior paper stock and has high artistic value. In other words, this is no plain, utilitarian stamped envelope, such as those regulated by the commission.
"The stationery is an optional product that encourages customers to use the mail. The price is competitive with similar items sold in the marketplace. The law does not provide the Postal Rate Commission with the authority to determine the artistic and philatelic value of stationery," said Mark Saunders , a spokesman for the Postal Service.
In its June 8 brief with the commission, the Postal Service argued that "the pre-printed stamp is almost incidental, because the main feature and principal source of demand is the stationery itself, including the unique artwork. In this light, the sale of high-quality stationery featuring licensed artwork is a very different animal from stamped envelopes and stamped cards."
Stamp collectors don't see it that way.
"We're appalled that they should create this stuff and charge so much for it," said Rob Haeseler , director of administration for the American Philatelic Society in Bellefonte, Pa.
The Postal Service replied that if the cost of the package is too much for collectors, they can always hunt for single sheets from the set on auction sites such as eBay or from other stamp sellers.
Shelley Dreifuss , director of the Office of the Consumer Advocate at the commission, said she is concerned about such Postal Service forays into unregulated services, some of which have failed in the past.
"The markup on stamp stationery is way out of line with other postal products. The commission would never approve a markup like this," she said in an interview.
The fight over the Disney stationery has been going on since 2004, when Carlson filed a complaint with the commission.
The independent panel tried to have the issue resolved informally and appointed a settlement coordinator. That effort failed and in January the Postal Service asked that the complaint be thrown out.
Carlson said in his filings that the Disney stationery -- and another similar line being marketed by the Postal Service -- are conveniences just like stamped envelopes and stamped cards, and the aerogramme that the Postal Service has sold for years. He called them forms of postal stationery that are a few cents more than the cost of the stamp. And unlike other mailing materials, the stationery can only be sold by the Postal Service.
"You can buy packaging tape at the drugstore, but nobody else can sell stationery with postage imprinted on it," he said.
The Postal Service said if the commission steps in and regulates its pricing, stamped stationery and the public will suffer. It might have to sell the stamps and the paper separately, which would devalue such an arrangement for Disney, the Postal Service, the public and collectors.
"Again, the likely result would be no more stamped stationery with licensed artwork," a Postal Service filing said.