Sunderland's (Un)Intellectual Property Strikes Again

Gareth Copley - Getty Images

A pub landlord in Sunderland has become the latest victim of Sunderland AFC's fun police, as they bid to stop him using merchandise bought from the official club store.

When we read a story in the Sunderland Echo this morning, it struck a chord with us behind the scenes here at Roker Report. Perhaps it's time we told you all a bit about our story too.

The story concerns Alan Wallace, landlord of The Fort pub on Roker Terrace, who has been contacted by the club's legal department and ordered to remove flags and other merchandise items from the windows of his pub. A pub, near the ground, that many fans frequent on a matchday and doesn't do anything against the rules such as showing foreign TV games, or Sunderland games Just a pub for fans to go to should they wish, decorated how they choose fit.

Alan told the Sunderland Echo about his situation;

The flags were bought from the club shop, and it does not say anywhere on them that they are not for commercial use. Everything that is in here is bought from the club shop.

We really rely on match days and the punters like to see Sunderland memorabilia.

When I work on match days, can I not wear a shirt? Are they going to stop people getting Sunderland tattoos, because I'm covered in them?

It all seems rather silly doesn't it? Alan has gone on to say that he's not going to be taking anything down unless the club take him to court over it. I hope he sticks by his word and does so, as the club are going incredibly over the top with this sort of thing.

It's something we've encountered on several occasions here at Roker Report too, where the club have been in contact with us over the use of images, and twice issued similar letters as well as Cease & Desist orders. As you can see by the fact we're writing this, neither came to anything.

As we've said, our issues concerned the use of images. With their first attempt, they were well within their rights to do so. It was just me on a WordPress theme, stealing images from Google Image Search. I complied, and went through every story removing images.

Later we moved to our current home on SB Nation. One of the major boons of being here is the very, VERY expensive contract we have with Getty Images to use images. Believing everything was above board in the fact we now paid for images through an authorised dealer, things should be fine?... Not in the eyes of Sunderland AFC PLC LLC or whatever they want to call themselves.

We were now deemed by the club as, and I quote a senior director at the club, a "direct competitor" of the club. First of all this is very flattering, but we really aren't. We don't have access to players, live match coverage, video and many other things which the main site offers. We're just a bunch of fans who are doing this for the love of it. We love Sunderland, just as Alan Wallace appears to do so too. Be a fan, but not too much it seems.

Another letter came, and this time we fought it. Aside from the Getty Images contract with SB Nation, another great thing is having access to a full legal department, so we contacted them.

Things rumbled on between ourselves and Sunderland over it. We were even contacted by DataCo. The club claimed they owned the images to anyone in action, in a Premier League game, wearing a Sunderland kit. Strangely DataCo then said that they owned all images of everything.

Who exactly owns what? To this day we still don't know. If these images are owned as such, then how come they are readily for sale on Getty to anyone with a few thousand quid spare? Oh right, the "End User License Agreement" - you need one of those. The agreement which apparently needs to be on every page which displays an image.

Two questions are raised from this. The first of which is "How do you get one?"... Once again the buck was passed. DataCo claimed that the images are property of the club, and we should contact them... The club said that they are property of DataCo and we should contact them. We have been to each of these outlets with a blank cheque in hand which nobody wanted to accept.

Eventually I guess they got bored and left us alone.

With nobody wanting to take any money, and before we left the whole situation alone, we asked the club how it was acceptable for many other websites and news outlets to do exactly the same thing we do, albeit without as much opinion, and not displaying their EULA. In fact the club itself don't display one.

The dialogue between ourselves and the previously mentioned high-ranking official ran a very similar course to this;

RR: How do newspapers and other websites get by without displaying the license?

SAFC: They have a separate license.

RR: Could we apply for such license?

SAFC: No. You wouldn't get one. It's different.

RR: How is it different? We'd like apply for one anyway, and even if we get turned down then so be it.

SAFC: It's just different. You're not getting one, and we're not going to speak to you any further.

We only asked a simple question. How very "it's our ball and we're going home" of them. However you have to wonder if the ball is theirs after all the mixed messages. Equally if any of this is ever disputed, we still have the emails which could be published. This is a more polite version of events.

But it brings us back to the main point, and in this case Alan Wallace and The Fort. Alan should stand up for himself here, as should all self-respecting Sunderland fans. We just wanted to show our support in one way, he in another.

It's been a long held belief that football is a business more than a sport, and I guess the old romantic in me didn't want to believe that, but I've learned over the last 18-months that this is very much the case, and it's really quite saddening, especially when you're threatened from the club for merely talking about them, or showing your support via flags and merchandise.

Alan Wallace, The Fort, and anyone else who has gone through similar issues have our full support.

We're not prepared to stand for this any more. We heartily expect a third C&D letter to come through after this post, but that will be put straight in my tubular, plastic bag lined, "filing" beneath the desk.

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