DENVER — The military command that protects the skies over the U.S. and Canada is also protecting the name of its famous Santa-tracking operation.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command has trademarked NORAD Tracks Santa and licensed a private company to sell official T-shirts and other gear.

NORAD says the goal isn’t to make money but to keep profiteers from cashing in.

NORAD began tracking Santa in 1955 when a newspaper ad listed the wrong phone number for kids to call Santa. They wound up calling the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD’s predecessor.

Last year, NORAD Tracks Santa answered 102,000 phone calls on Christmas Eve. Its website attracted 18.9 million unique visitors from 220 countries and territories in a December alone.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, which stages the Santa-tracking event from its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., obtained the trademark this year.

The Defense Department’s Branding and Trademark Licensing Office – yes, Virginia, there is a Pentagon trademark office -advised the military to sell NORAD Tracks Santa merchandise to cement its ownership of the name, said Navy Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a NORAD spokesman.

“We had a vulnerability by not having a NORAD Tracks Santa trademark,” Davis said. “The vulnerability was that anyone could come along and sell merchandise or somehow use it to make a profit.”

NORAD signed the licensing agreement in November with U.S. Allegiance of Bend, Ore., which specializes in licensed souvenirs and has worked other deals with the military.

The company launched on Dec. 1. The biggest seller so far is a customized letter from Santa, said Steve Crawford, president of U.S. Allegiance. Another favorite is a red T-shirt that says “I tracked Santa 2012.”

To Crawford’s surprise, many orders are coming in from overseas. He said he plans to expand the line of goods next year to include languages other than English.

“The globalized popularity of NORAD Tracks Santa is really amazing,” he said.

Davis said the move to trademark the operation was unrelated to Google’s decision to launch its own Santa tracker this year. NORAD and Google parted ways by mutual agreement after working together from 2007 to 2011, he said.

NORAD is a joint U.S.-Canada command responsible for defending the skies over both countries and monitoring potential threats from the sea.

The story of how it began tracking Santa has become part of Christmas lore: A Colorado Springs newspaper ad in 1955 invited kids to call Santa, but a typo in the phone number had them calling the Continental Air Defense Command or CONAD, NORAD’s predecessor, also in Colorado Springs.

CONAD commanders played along, and over the years the operation grew into today’s viral hit.

The program generates the kind of global buzz that conjures visions of sugar plums dancing in a marketer’s head. Last year its volunteers answered 102,000 phone calls in 23 hours and its website attracted 18.9 million unique visitors from 220 countries and territories in December alone. It also was getting requests from the public for merchandise, Davis said.

NORAD will get about 6 percent of the sales revenue from the merchandise, Davis said. NORAD hasn’t projected how much money that will be but it won’t be substantial, he said. Through the first three weeks of December, sales netted less than $200, he said.

The money will be used for the program, which Davis said operates solely with volunteers and corporate sponsors and gets zero tax dollars.

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