June 14, 2018

Unfaking FIFA: Battling the Ambush Marketing and Counterfeits

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As the FIFA football World Cup is on the horizon, innumerable fans across the world are flying high with excitement and fervor. Russia, this year’s host country, is all set to kick off the month-long football festival which will be held from June 14 to July 15, 2018. Among other preparations, FIFA and the organizing authorities of Russia have left no stone unturned to protect FIFA’s brand from the plague of counterfeiting and ambush marketing. Recently, the International Trademark Association (INTA), a global association of trademark owners and professionals, also issued a warning for the fans and other stakeholders against such unscrupulous practices. The statement issued by INTA’s president Mei-lan Stark specifically highlighted instances of sale of counterfeit goods financing organized crimes, like inter alia the trafficking of drugs and weapons, and the money from untaxed fake FIFA memorabilia being diverted from the workers, the R&D and the funding needed to host the tournament to facilitate illegitimate businesses.[1]

FIFA’s intellectual property, which primarily consists of trademarks like logos of FIFA, World Cup, etc. and copyright in works such as emblem, mascot, official poster, etc., can be used only by companies that acquire official license from FIFA to show their legitimate association with the tournament. These licensed products bear a quality guarantee in relation to standards of product quality, ethical business practices and working conditions, which ensure that practices such as child labor are excluded.[2] However, the market is littered with instances of “ambush marketing” wherein unauthorized entities take advantage of the brand image and goodwill of another company without contributing to its organization. Traders and producers dealing with items featuring FIFA’s official marks without purchasing the required license defeat the purpose of providing commercial exclusivity to companies that invest and associate with the World Cup. Such investment is undoubtedly crucial to the organization of the coveted tournament as it provides for the funding pertinent to maintain the high standards of organization expected by the fans. Furthermore, such illicit practices thrive on the fans’ improvidence and unawareness towards genuine FIFA merchandises and insignias for unfair commercial advantages. Hence, the fans face the risk of buying and using counterfeit products which are mostly poorly made using low grade materials and do not meet the purported safety standards. These practices adversely affect the tournament and are detrimental to the sentiment of fair play that transcends the tournament

Realizing the aforementioned risks associated with such infringements, FIFA has made preparations to implement measures, together with customs authorities across the world, to thwart the sale, trade and production of counterfeit products for FIFA World Cup 2018. The instituted brand protection regime would be focusing on identifying infringements of FIFA’s IP rights and actively monitoring intellectual property registers across the world to safeguard and preserve its exclusivity to its brands and marketing assets. Also, FIFA’s enactment of Commercial Restriction Areas (CRAs) around the stadiums that host matches of the FIFA World Cup™ and other official sites would provide additional legal protection to the legitimate licensees against prohibited marketing activities around the stadium, unauthorized traders, counterfeit goods and ticket touts.[3] Apart from the legal measures, FIFA is also indulging in extensive awareness programs to sensitize general public, the business fraternity, ticket-holders and other potential stakeholders who may be duped or inadvertently partake or contribute to successful commission of such activities.

Though the policies enacted by FIFA certainly assure protection against the counterfeit goods, however, the battle doesn’t end here. Even the service providers, like the television companies that legally procure licenses for broadcasting the tournament, share the concern of ambush marketing. Recently, Sony warned streaming sites in India and the neighboring countries against broadcasting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Through emails sent to various streaming sites, Sony reiterated its exclusive right of broadcasting, re-broadcasting and transmitting World Cup matches in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This was undoubtedly an essential step taken by Sony to reaffirm its exclusivity with respect to telecasting FIFA World Cup in the said countries and to remind the relevant companies to refrain from infringing upon the authorized exclusivity by streaming the competition through any platform including the internet, mobile, television and radio without Sony’s written permission. The caution notice highlighted the monitoring activities that would be taken up by the agency to check any kind of infringements and asserted its right to initiate legal proceedings (civil and/or criminal) in case of violation of the said notice.

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[1]Available at https://www.inta.org/press/pages/fifaworldcup2014_en.aspx.
[2] https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/marketing/brand-protection/protect-fifa-world-cup-brand.html
[3] https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/marketing/brand-protection/surveillance.html

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