Liverpool slipped up, but trademarks are important

WHATEVER next, trademarking the air? Liverpool’s bid to trademark the name of their city has, appropriately, been rejected, and supporter groups such as “Spirit of Shankly” have expressed their relief.

It must be something of an embarrassing situation, for this is a club that has long aligned itself to the city’s culture, the very meaning of being “scouse” and regional identity. To trademark the name of the city is, in effect, grabbing something that belongs to that city and its people. Football fans always claim, somewhat erroneously, that a club belongs to them, but in actual fact it belongs to the owners. The name “Liverpool” does not belong to the owners of a football club or the football club itself, one that represents only part of the city, even though if there is a place where community and football are at one, it is probably going to be Liverpool.

This foolhardy project is, temporarily, damaging to the image of Liverpool FC, or at least to the people in the boardroom, who have been ill-advised and perhaps consumed by greed. Or maybe, given the owners are from the US, they have been very naïve.

The timing of this story is poor, for Liverpool’s currency is strong – a popular, charismatic manager and an exciting team. Furthermore, their UEFA Champions League win has placed them back among the European elite.

Liverpool’s trademark should be their badge, their colours, their stadium; the imagery that characterises the club, and there’s plenty of that at Anfield. It’s Liverpool Football Club, but the city it still represents also gave us the Beatles and other icons from the arts. By seeking to trademark “Liverpool”, they were, perhaps unwittingly, forgetting that football is only part of a rich municipal heritage? And at this precise moment, Liverpool FC is arguably – certainly on the pitch – less “scouse” than it has ever been, with foreign owners, a German coach and their best players coming from Egypt, the Netherlands, Brazil and Senegal.

Thankfully, fan activism has played its part in ensuring the trademarking didn’t happen, the Intellectual Property Office rejecting the application due to the city’s “geographical significance”. Other clubs have had more success, such as Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton. And there is obviously scope for others to benefit from the growing importance of intangible assets. Arsenal, one assumes, could easily go down this route, if they haven’t already.

Everton registered their logo and motto Nil Satis Nisi Optimum  almost a decade ago, but missed out on their “People’s Club” claim when a Liverpool market stallholder beat them to it. Chelsea trademarked a lot of their IP in 2016 but interestingly, after Jose Mourinho left, they still owned his trademarked name.

FIFA jealously guards its intellectual property, which comprises  trademarks such as FIFA, World Cup (and year), as well as official posters, mascots and other artwork. The Olympic games is similarly intense around the use of the very word Olympic.

Clubs trademark items to, understandably, try and eradicate fake goods bearing their name. The countries hit by the highest volume of trade of fakes are USA, Italy and France, although the United Kingdom is in the top 10. Football has always attracted a lot of counterfeit production and clubs are now wise to the benefit of trademarking their names and cultural identity. As well as crests, icons, stadium names and player names, they can also trademark certain phrases, such as Bayern Munich’s Mia san mia.

The global nature of modern football has made the management of trademarks that much harder. If a club registers a trademark in the European Union, that same trademark does not apply to China or the Middle East. Clubs can acquire greater protection by teaming-up with top companies like Adidas and Puma, who will have their own logos on the football shirts.

Contemporary business practices greatly value intangible assets such as brand, intellectual property and goodwill. These assets are firmly embedded in the balance sheets of major companies. Organisations like the OECD have started to recognise the value of intangibles and are predicting that around 40% of overall enterprise value in the future will be attributed to intangibles. These can be protected by trademarks, so they are likely to become ever more relevant. We shall probably see more clubs attempt to secure more intellectual property in the future, as the lines between the corporate world and football become increasingly blurred.




Photo: PA