As discussed on these pages last week, Liverpool Football Club’s application to claim the word ‘Liverpool’ as their intellectual property, when used in a football context, has sparked a great deal of controversy. Such was the reaction to the news, that club CEO Peter Moore took to the airwaves on BBC Radio Merseyside to explain the club’s position.
Mr Moore was keen to point out that Liverpool FC were not seeking to penalise local vendors, but rather prevent those who would seek to mislead customers with fake products purporting to be official merchandise. However, he had to concede that even a t-shirt which simply contained the word ‘Liverpool’ on it, surrounded by images of footballs could be in breach of the club’s intellectual property, should the club’s application be successful.
While some supporters have suggested that the club is perfectly within its rights to protect its products from cheap counterfeits, pointing out that these damage the reputation of Liverpool FC and deprive it of potential income, others are deeply troubled. They argue that the club are seeking to monopolise something that does not belong to them, the name of the city itself.
I contacted Liverpool Football Club for comment, and a spokesperson told me:
‘We are applying to register ‘Liverpool’ as a trademark but only in the context of football products and services. We are not and wouldn’t ever, seek to register ‘Liverpool’ across the board. This application is strictly to protect the club and supporters from those benefiting from inauthentic products. The benefits to the club to have this protection in place are to ensure all revenues from official products and services are channelled back into the club and this is reinvested into the team and supporting infrastructure.’
They were also keen to make clear that, only if the club felt an organisation was benefiting from inauthentic products or services which were being sold to supporters, would it consider taking action.
Liverpool FC already hold the intellectual property rights to a number of other words, phrases and symbols. For example, they have trademarked ‘This is Anfield,’ ‘YNWA,’ and the Liverbird image, in the context of football. In relation to the latter, the club was refused the right to trademark the emblem of the city, in the UK. However, they went on to make a successful application to the EU.
Many argue that club has already done enough to protect its interests, and that attempting to trademark the name of the city is a step too far. Ian Maloney, the Liverpool born founder of Love Follow Conquer, an independent clothing label, argues that if the club are successful in their application, it will give them the right to police who is allowed to produce football related clothing with the word ‘Liverpool’ on it.
He points out that the club’s application includes reference to classes ranging from apparel to podcasts, broadcasting, education and catering, and argues:
‘If LFC are successful in their application trademark law states the holder of a trademark must enforce their trademark. They won’t be able to pick and choose when to enforce it otherwise the trademark could be challenged by others.’
This potentially challenges the argument put forward by the club, that they will be able to pick and choose which independent producers they pursue. I don’t possess the legal expertise to comment on the above, but a cursory internet search suggests that an organisation is at risk of losing its trademark, if it fails to use it after it is granted.
However, for Ian, there is a deeper issue at stake. And, his concern is one shared by many of the people who responded to my original post. That is, an objection to the club attempting to have ownership and control of something they didn’t create or invent – the word ‘Liverpool.’ For many of us, it is simply unfathomable as to why trademarking ‘Liverpool FC’ wouldn’t be enough to protect the club’s brand. Why seek monopoly over the name of a city?
Ian Maloney picks up the point, suggesting that unless the application is withdrawn, it could drive a wedge between the club’s owners, the city and its supporters. He argues,
‘The City of Liverpool is a community and has been a cultural centre for over 800 years. Liverpool FC wants to be part of that community and because of this it can’t own the community it wants to belong to. Liverpool FC shouldn’t have the right to trademark the word ‘Liverpool’ in the same way any other business shouldn’t. The word ‘Liverpool’ belongs to the people of Liverpool, not to any corporate business.’
Liverpool City Councillor, and leading figure in the Fans Supporting Food-banks charity, which the club supports, Ian Byrne, feels that the move jeopardises the futures of independent traders, and adds his voice to calls for the club to withdraw its application, saying:
‘The importance of the independents who do so much to add to our fan culture cannot be over-estimated. They are fundamental to our current success on and off the pitch, and the club have previously embraced their role. This plan will place them in danger. FSG should cease with the trademark idea, which also endangers the huge bank of goodwill and optimism built up last season.’
Of course, the independent producers and traders aren’t the only stakeholders concerned by the potential trademark. A number of local amateur football teams, such as AFC Liverpool and City of Liverpool FC (COLFC) also use the name of the city. One of the directors of COLFC, Peter Furmedge, told me:
‘City of Liverpool FC has a number of concerns about this trademark application, particularly as it would give LFC effective ownership over the word “Liverpool” in every conceivable football related context.’
Peter explains that his club is committed to the principles of common ownership and community wealth building. Central to this, is the fact that ‘Liverpool’ is part of a shared identity, an identity that represents significant social capital that has been built up over many generations. He continues:
‘Such a shared asset, and the social capital it has accrued, belongs to all of us within the “Liverpool” community. We contribute to its value daily, just as previous generations have done, and future generations will do. A shared community asset, like “Liverpool”, should never be appropriated into private ownership. At “fair value”, nobody could ever afford to buy it!’
To Peter, the value of the name ‘Liverpool’ has been created by the activities, efforts and sacrifices of countless generations. All of us, as citizens of this great city, continue to contribute to this ‘social capital’ daily. Liverpool FC are just one component of that community, as are Tranmere, Everton and others. Sure, they have also contributed, quite considerably in fact, but does that entitle them to monopolise it in any context?
While there is no suggestion that Peter Moore is acting in bad faith, when he states that the club would never seek to act against City of Liverpool FC or others, there is an objection to being placed in a subordinate position to the club, if the trademark is granted. And, there is a concern that organisations, like COLFC, would be required to ‘get the nod’ from Liverpool FC, in order to continue to use their own name.
In addition, others have argued that, even if we accept the club’s assurances today, there is no guarantee that FSG’s intentions won’t change in the future. And, there is a real fear that potential future owners could use the power of the trademark to shut down all competition. As Peter points out,
‘This is something that could occur in any number of realistic scenarios. For whatever reason, future owners of the club may not be willing to accept the presence of other football related activity taking place with the word “Liverpool” involved. Liverpool supporters will remember the antics of Hicks and Gillett, and the infamous “sons of strikers” dossier on supporter activists. Imagine that lot, and Christian Purslow, with these trademark rights to play with!
‘Unfortunately, rogue football club owners and executives are not uncommon. In my 30 years involvement in the football supporters’ movement, I have met many supporters’ groups at clubs with ownership regimes that would not hesitate to use the trademark rights that LFC has applied for as a weapon against perceived local rivals.
‘Regardless of the expressed best intentions of the current LFC ownership, they cannot guarantee that somewhere down the line the club will not have owners that will use these trademark rights in ways that LFC currently assures us they won’t, but the wording of the trademark application clearly allows.
‘A further concern of ours is that LFC may sell, or transfer, the trademark rights to a third party, such as a commercial partner. LFC has previously done this, when the Moores and Parry regime transferred rights to Adidas. That severely restricted LFC’s ability to develop its own brand. As things stand, if the trademark is granted, there is nothing to prevent a third part from using the rights as leverage in raising their brand awareness – this being the whole point of commercial partnerships after all.’
Another independent trader shares his concerns. Hat Scarf or a Badge have been producing Liverpool FC related apparel close to Anfield for many years. Their products have been worn by supporters and ex-players alike. Indeed, their designs are inspired by and continue to inspire supporter culture. I contacted them for comment, and found they share many of the concerns raised above. A spokesperson told me,
‘We are concerned about how these trademark rights may be used by future owners.’
Transalpino, who take their name from the epic trans-Alpine trek taken by Liverpool supporters on their way to Rome in 1977 have similar concerns. A spokesperson told me,
‘The main concern is that ‘Liverpool’ belongs to the city, I totally get that they are a business and they have to protect their brand. I can accept them trademarking ‘Liverpool FC.’
‘Peter Moore said on BBC 5 LIVE that it wasn’t the small local vendors they were after. but he then went on to say that a red shirt with ‘Liverpool’ on surrounded by footballs would be viewed as alluding to be official merchandise.
‘The club will do what they want, once they have the trademark. They’re a US multi-national who want to take ownership of the name of our city, what happens once they sell to unscrupulous owners?
‘When I learned of this, in protest, I made an application to trademark ‘Manchester’ in a couple of classes, I will be monitoring it to see if we succeed. I will make a big song and dance about it if we lose, especially if Liverpool win.’
Another group of creators and innovators, who could potentially be affected by this move, are the various fanzines, websites, podcasts and other online content producers. It is via these mediums that fan culture is often propagated.
Indeed, there is something of a symbiotic relationship at work, in which the club latches onto supporter content and vice-versa. In my view there is nothing wrong with this, and it should be encouraged. However, the attempt to monopolise words associated with the club dangerously shifts the balance of power in the direction of the club.
I discussed this with Dave Usher, founder and editor of The Liverpool Way, a popular fanzine and website, and Chris Pajak, co-founder and presenter of The Redmen TV, a supporter generated show that broadcasts daily on YouTube. Both are concerned about the club’s attempts to trademark the city’s name.
Dave told me that, while he felt the club would eventually back away from the idea, he has been angered by the move. He’s even more irritated, though, by supporters who he believes are supportive of the club’s application. He told me,
‘Frankly it’s appalling that some suit in a marketing department thinks they have the right to monopolise the word. But, what bothers me even more than that are the fans who are attempting to justify it.
”The same thing happened when they wanted to put the ticket prices up. There were fans out there saying it’s ok because it means more money in the transfer kitty. I mean really? The hundreds of millions they get from sponsorship deals and the unprecedented revenue from TV isn’t enough?
‘Worse than that though are those fans who can’t seem to differentiate between FSG and the club. As far as owners go, we could do a lot worse, but let’s not forget who they are and why they got into this. They are a group of rich American fellas who made a shrewd overseas investment.
‘They aren’t ‘the club.’ They just currently own it. Yet some think it’s ok for them to prevent anyone else from using the word ‘Liverpool’ in a football context? It baffles me, to be honest. It’s actually scary how some people see the world.’
Meanwhile, Chris Pajak doubts whether anyone, anywhere in the world, who purchases unofficial merchandise, outside of an official club store, does so believing it to be the real deal. He explains,
‘It’s a bit of a stretch to say they are protecting people from buying inauthentic products. To me, it looks like a land grab. Liverpool FC want all the money that’s spent on Liverpool FC. With no unofficial merch [sic] on offer, then revenues go up. Simple as.
‘As far as independent retailers go, I can see it affecting their livelihoods. 90% percent of the scarves sold outside the ground will have the word Liverpool on them. What does the club expect them to say – Merseyside Reds? Give over. The word Liverpool does not belong to a football club, it belongs to the people. And, that’s that.
‘This is a foot through the door and, once they own it, there’s no going back. If they own it, they’ll want to protect it. Otherwise why do it in the first place. Even if FSGs intentions are pure, who’s to say the next owners will feel the same. This needs to end before it reaches a point of no return.’
In my conversations with many of the stakeholders affected by this move, it is clear to me that the club’s reassurances have done little to assuage anxieties. Irrespective of the legalities many are sceptical of the club’s intentions, and even those who are willing to believe they are acting in good faith, fear the repercussions under future ownership structures, if this trademark is granted.
With all of that, I remain astonished that Liverpool FC have embarked on this path. It is one that risks reputational damage and could undo much of the goodwill earned in recent years.
There is hope, however. Both City of Liverpool FC and Spirit of Shankly have told me that there is continuing dialogue between the club and interested parties. Peter Moore has described those discussions as ‘congenial and intelligent.’ While Peter Furmedge described them as ‘friendly and constructive.’
It is hoped that the owners will now reconsider and continue to engage in meaningful dialogue with a view to reaching a compromise. There is certainly a willingness on the part of the directors of COLFC to find a sensible solution, with Peter Furmedge telling me:
Notwithstanding our concerns, COLFC recognises the genuine issues that LFC wishes to address. We are looking forward to meeting with LFC at some point in order to negotiate a solution that addresses the concerns of all parties, a solution that respects community shared ownership of “Liverpool” while affording LFC the brand protection they seek. However, the trademark application as it stands must be withdrawn by LFC or, failing that, stopped through public objections.
It seems that the ball is now in Liverpool FCs court. They have the power to step back from this move. I hope they take the opportunity to negotiate on the basis of the shared interests of all involved.