FIFA works all year and all around the world to ensure that its official trademarks and other intellectual property (IP) rights are properly protected and enforced, but when it comes to the protection of its major tournaments there is no substitution for good old legwork. Ever since the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, FIFA's own "tournament line-up" has included rights protection experts pounding the streets of the host country during the event to ensure that businesses and individuals are playing by the rules when it comes to the proper observance of FIFA's rights. Sometimes misrepresented, particularly in local media, as an attempt to stifle the creativity of small businesses, the rights protection programme (RPP) is in fact aimed primarily at tackling organised "ambush marketers", counterfeiters, unauthorised ticket sellers and other "event pirates", all of whom seek to profit from an event to which they have contributed nothing.
Without constant vigilance and swift action to prevent such infringements, high-profile tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup™ would face extreme difficulty in attracting official sponsors, in turn damaging FIFA's ability to stage its eleven other international tournaments, many of them in the women's game or at youth level, and carry out its important work in promoting the game and funding football-related social programmes.
There was little need for active rights protection measures during the first six decades of the FIFA World Cup but the rise of event piracy in the early 1990s saw rights protected as official trademarks coming under increasing attack. In 1994 FIFA recorded 258 infringements across 39 countries. By the time the 1998 World Cup came around, FIFA's newly-created RPP patrols helped to identify 773 cases in 47 countries. This more than doubled to 1,884 instances in 94 countries in 2002, when the FIFA World Cup was staged in Japan and Korea, and rose at a similar rate to reach 3,300 cases when the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ came around.
"You only have to look at the recent rise in deliberate event piracy activities like ambush marketing to understand why the active enforcement of trademarks and other marketing rights protection is both necessary and logical," FIFA RPP manager Miguel Portela told FIFA World. "It is the same for any company, or you could even take organising a private event as an example. When you have spent time organising a special event like a birthday party or a wedding, you don't want gatecrashers coming along to ruin things. The FIFA World Cup is of course on a completely different scale, but the principle is the same."
Taking place one year before the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and using four of the same venues, June's FIFA Confederations Cup was seen as an excellent "dress rehearsal" for the main event, not least when it came to testing South Africa's readiness for potential rights infringements.
Working together with legal advisers, volunteer patrollers, Host City representatives and South African police officers, the RPP venue managers maintained a constant presence around the stadiums and Commercial Restriction Zones, checking that the laws were being adhered to and, just as importantly, learning lessons that will help improve operations at next year's flagship event.
Although not perhaps on the scale that might be expected at the World Cup itself, there was plenty of unauthorised activity to keep the patrols busy. Unlicensed traders or "hawkers" were frequently seen circling the stadiums and the police were able to snatch bag-loads of counterfeit goods, including fake Bafana Bafana shirts bearing a slightly-adjusted "2010 FLFA World Cup" emblem in a misguided attempt to circumvent IP laws.
There were also several more serious instances of ambush marketing, the main priority for FIFA's on-site RPP teams, including a convoy of branded cars in Mangaung/Bloemfontein which sought to distribute samples of a particular energy drink, and a South African beer brand which was spotted handing out free T-shirts and other fan items at bars just outside the Royal Bafokeng and Free State Stadiums in a concerted campaign clearly aimed at stadium-goers.
The latter activity is taken particularly seriously by FIFA, since it attempts to turn large numbers of fans into "human billboards" inside football grounds - and can also infuriate unwitting supporters if it leads to them having to surrender the items as they enter the stadium precinct. This in turn can be portrayed as heavy-handedness on the part of FIFA, but aside from such coordinated ambush marketing campaigns, there has never been any desire on FIFA's part to prevent genuine, individual supporters from watching a match while wearing the "wrong" type of T-shirt or baseball cap.
The situation is similar when it comes to small businesses who are naturally keen to benefit from the financial opportunities that arise from staging a FIFA World Cup. Before and during the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ there were many inaccurate media reports claiming that FIFA was taking vigorous action against local bakers for selling "World Cup buns" or "World Cup bread". The truth is that FIFA decides in each individual case whether an infringement should be pursued and how to do so. In the case of the last World Cup, there were no instances of FIFA taking such steps against a small business.
Indeed, the public information sheet produced by FIFA to explain its official trademarks clearly sets out a number of "do's and don'ts" to help businesses understand the ways in which they can benefit from the financial knock-on effects of a FIFA World Cup without abusing FIFA's protected rights. As well as setting out what companies and individuals should not do, the sheet actively encourages firms to get involved with the event by, for example, becoming service providers or suppliers for stadium construction or general infrastructure requirements, or for events and activities staged by FIFA, Local Organising Committees, Host Cities and other partners. There is also the opportunity to apply for an official product licence, or simply impressing clients by treating them to one of the various hospitality packages offered by FIFA. More generally, businesses can of course conduct non-specific football promotions, so long as they do not make direct or indirect reference to the FIFA World Cup™. Beyond all that, local companies can naturally benefit from the large influx of visitors created by the tournament, from the increase in the host country's international profile and from the physical legacy left by the building of new stadiums and infrastructure.
The messages contained in the information sheet are actively followed up by FIFA with regular information seminars which are presented to local industry bodies and trade associations during the build-up to major tournaments, with the aim of informing companies across the region in question about their commercial options.
"FIFA is as keen as anybody to see local businesses doing well out of the FIFA World Cup, as this helps to further enhance the attraction of the event while also fostering good relations with the people who live and work in the areas where the football is taking place," points out Jürg Vollmüller, head of FIFA's Commercial Legal Department. "So long as companies understand the rules, everyone is happy, because local business can enjoy the obvious benefits of having a FIFA World Cup on their doorstep while the official FIFA Partners remain satisfied that their exclusivity has also been respected."