When The Borough Council of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk awarded the lease to The Walks stadium to the Chapman family last year after the collapse of Kings Lynn FC, this can hardly be what they had in mind. The Chapmans have been acting with antagonism towards the clubs supporters trust, The Blue & Gold Trust, for some considerable time but this division has hit a new low with the behaviour of the club’s owners this week. Chairman Buster Chapman has been reported as seeking to ‘distance the club’ from a trust, some of whose membership have already been highly critical of his stewardship of the new club, Kings Lynn Town.
Itis, of course, his right to do this. It may not be wise – there is scarcely a non-league football club in the country that can afford to alienate sections of its support with such clumsy attempts at what looks from this distance like divide and conquer – and he may well find that he pays the price for such fighting talk at the turnstiles at the start of next season, but it’s his decision. Where those running the club seem to cross a line in the sand in terms of petulant behaviour, however, is in issuing legal threats to the supporters trust over the ownership of the domain name of the trust’s website. The trust’s website has been around using the domain name that it holds for several years, now. It was, for some time, the official site of Kings Lynn FC. When that club went bust, though, it reverted to being an unofficial site and has, since then, been the site of the Blue & Gold Trust. The legal argument put forward by the club is certainly an interesting one:
“Under Common Law, ‘The Linnets’ is a trademark belonging to the club and the Trust has no permission or right to use it. The club have been known as ‘The Linnets’ for nearly 135 years and we have suggested the trust should instead use their own domain name, ‘blueandgoldtrust.org.uk’, which is more accurate in representing who they actually are. I hope they will adhere to this request with the minimum of fuss so both parties can avoid any costly legal bills.”
The use of the phrase “Common Law” is important, here. It means that Kings Lynn Town FC has never registered the name “The Linnets” as a trademark. The statement claims that, “The club have [sic] been known as ‘The Linnets’ for nearly 135 years”, but Kings Lynn Town FC is not the same club as Kings Lynn FC. It is a new club and a new company, playing at the same ground and in the same colours as the old one. It has not existed for 135 years. It has existed for a year and a half. This statement may have been to imply that the Chapmans hold Prior Rights (the ability to defend a trademark on the basis of having used used it for a period of time so that it has acquired local distinctiveness) to this trademark, but it’s difficult to see how they can lay claim to this when there are even other football clubs – Burscough and, most noticably of all, Runcorn Linnets spring immediately to mind – with the same nickname. Nicknames can be registered as trademarks, and further information on the Nominet domain name dispute resolution service is here. There has been little in the recent language of the Chapmans that suggests much interest in anything other than denigrating the trust, though.
The one thing that can be said for this particular website is that it doesn’t in any way attempt to pass itself off as the official website of the club. Indeed, a blue bar across the top of its home page states quite boldly that it is, “Blue & Gold Trust Official Website”. This, however, doesn’t seem to be the issue at play here. What the Chapmans seem bothered by is the criticism of them coming from the website’s forum. We are not going to go into the rights and wrongs of criticisms of the Chapmans that have been made over the last year or so. It is, however, worth remembering that the owners of the club have legal recourse should they be libelled, but also that criticism is part and parcel of owning a football club. If they do not want this criticism, well, no-one forced them to take over the running of the club in the first place and no-one is forcing them to stay.
The supreme irony of the recent actions of the Chapmans is that they have thrown the divisions at the club into the public arena in a way that would never have happened otherwise. These remain economically difficult times and, as we mentioned above, there are few clubs that can be affording to alienate its supporters at the moment. If, say, fifty people were to a look at this story and decide that Kings Lynn Town, under its current ownership, isn’t really worth the bother any more, then their non-engagement in the club would be likely to amount to thousands of pounds in lost revenue over the course of a year – through gate receipts, bar sales and other commercial activity. The Chapmans should, perhaps, weigh this up when claiming that, “unsubstantiated allegations contained on the Trust’s website that have, and may again in the future, detrimental effect upon the club’s capacity to secure sponsorship”. Exactly what size of sponsorship deal a club in the United Counties League could have had jeopardised by forum comments remains, again, unknown. In the meantime, the Chapmans seems happy to say, “it’s our way or the highway”. It will be interesting to see how many Linnets – if they are still allowed to call themselves that – choose that highway.
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