£450 isn’t an exceptionally large amount of money these days, and it’s mere change down the back of the sofa to an organistation the size of Liverpool Football Club. Small surprise, then, that they took the decision to invest this trifling sum of money with the UK Intellectual Property Office to get the liver bird registered as a trademark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, they have run into a small problem in the form of Liverpool City Council, who have reacted furiously to the application, on the basis that the symbol is a civic symbol, which belongs to the whole of the city.
The origins of the mythical bird are shrouded in mystery. A prototype version of it was used as early as the fourteenth century on a city coat of arms, though the bird was more commonly referred to as a cormorant until the start of this century. The bird’s significance was cemented into the culture of the city with the construction of the now iconic Liver Building in the centre of the city. The building has two distinctive clock towers, each adorned with a liver bird, one facing inland and one facing out to see, reportedly to symbolise looking out for the safety of the city’s population and those out at sea. Since then, the Liver Bird has come to become the symbol of the city itself, becoming the crest of the city council and appearing on the badges of all three of the city’s universities.
Asides from any other considerations, the very legality of such a claim by Liverpool Football Club is legally questionable, to say the least. “People feel that the Liver bird belongs to the public and not a company, no matter who they are”, said intellectual property rights expert David Worrall of Shipley Solicitors. It seems likely that such a challenge will follow. The council are already less than happy with the current owners of the club over their running of matters at Anfield. They are angry not only at the leveraged takeover which loaded the cost of Gillett and Hicks’ purchase onto the club, but also at the perceived lack of activity on the club’s part with regard to building a new stadium. As Councillor Flo Clucas, the Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council said, “This is outrageous. The Liver bird belongs to all the people of Liverpool and not one company or organisation. It cannot be bought and sold for private profit”.
The club insists that they are not seeking to copyright the Liver Bird, merely “their version” of it. They claim that they lose untold amounts of money from bootleg merchandise sold worldwide every year. This claim rings as a hollow one. How much money it is exactly that Liverpool use to these nefarious bootleggers doesn’t appear to have been mentioned and, in any case, there is a broader moral point to be made here. Would manufacturers of the sort of football kits that you see on market stalls really stop production because Liverpool now own the trademark to the liver bird? Even regardless of the dubious financial or legal arguments that could be put forward here, there is a moral point to be made. As the council rightly say, the liver bird belongs to the city of Liverpool, to its people and to all of its institutions. Liverpool Football Club claims that they are “not seeking to encroach on the rights of the city council or any other major city organisations to use the Liver bird image”, but the point remains that, should they obtain this trademark, it will largely be their decision who can use it and who can’t. How long would it be before they decide to start asserting their intellectual rights and charging for other organisations to use it?
Such moral bankruptcy from a major football club comes as no surprise to anyone with any knowledge of the game, and neither should it come as much of a surprise that this particular football club has demonstrated itself to be so out of touch with the community that it claims to represent. They already own the trademark to the phrases “This Is Anfield” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (which may come as something as a surprise to the estates of the composers Rodgers & Hammerstein, who wrote the song for their 1945 musical, “Carousel”). Liverpool, as a city, is fortunate to have one of the most instantly recognisable crests in the world, but the liver bird belongs to the city of Liverpool, all of its institutions and, indeed, all of its people.