In an appeal action last week, a court in Liege, Belgium threw out a claim by football clubs Juventus, PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto for fees from top European bookie companies Bwin, William Hill and Unibet, in a branding issue over the use of famous teams' names on bookie websites.
The Euro 2 million claim was in respect of the right to use the club names, trademarks and events on the sites for the purpose of taking sporting bets. The clubs also asked for a court order preventing the bookie companies from using their protected image rights under threat of a Euro 50 000 fine for any future infraction. This, too was rejected.
In rejecting the claim, the court ruled that gambling was a business activity completely seperate to the organisation of sporting events, and therefore organisers and clubs had no right to charge money for the use of team and club identifiers.
Paul van der Bulk, a lawyer representing the bookmaking companies, summed up the claim: “What they wanted was money for using the trademarks. But the court just said that the activities of a sports team is one activity and gambling is another activity. It’s part of the principle of freedom of commerce.”
The lawyer indicated that the legal precedent set in the case would be used in further cases where he would be defending gaming companies in France in a similar dispute brought by Roland Garros, the organisers of the French Open tennis tournament. Although the French court is under no obligation to follow Belgium’s ruling, it would certainly strengthen the defence case, he said.
The case has its genesis in a 2005 claim by the clubs, supported by key players such as David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane which was unsuccessful a year later and was subsequently taken on appeal. Club Real Madrid dropped its involvement following a sponsorship deal with Bwin in 2007.
Early reports indicate that the clubs may now appeal against the appeal, taking the case to the Belgian Supreme Court by alleging that the appeal court's reasoning was flawed and incorrect.
One contentious aspect of the case was the court's competence from a pan-European perspective. The purchase of Belgian company Mr. Bookmaker four years ago was motivated as the desirability of the court being involved. Previously the court had asked the European Court of Justice for guidance on the issue of competency.
Bwin issued a statement in the wake of the appeal finding, saying that it welcomed the court’s decision as reaffirming its belief that no trademarks had been infringed.
Konrad Sveceny, investor relations manager at Bwin, said: “We’re very happy that this is now off the table. There is an appeal but we don’t see any reason why this dispute should go any further. We see ourselves as a partner to sports organisations and a contributor to sports.”