Not so long ago on this site we marked the passing of one volunteer at one non-league football club by reflecting on the fact that without these volunteers, there would be no non-league football. Part of the battle for smaller clubs is in getting any publicity within a media culture that continues to ignore them almost all of the time, but one small technological development has allowed them at least a fighting chance. Over the last ten years or so, the cost of electronic technology – home computers, video cameras, cameras and so on – has dropped to such a degree that they can publicise themselves.
Some clubs put their videos on their own websites, whilst others have dedicated sites for video footage of their matches. Others, meanwhile, simply allow others to video within their grounds and put them up on sharing sites such as YouTube. It’s not something that anybody makes any money from – although the club may bundle up the best of the videos and sell a few DVDs at the end of the season – and it performs a vital service, allowing ex-pats and the idly curious to touch in a way that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise and offering a service that didn’t even exist as recently as a decade ago.
Spare a thought, then, for sixteen year old David Smith. Smith, a high school student, has been videoing matches at Highland League club Buckie Thistle and posting them onto YouTube for some time now. He approached the Scottish Football Association for permission to film Scottish Cup matches and they declined, so he didn’t. Hardly the sort of behaviour that would mark someone out as a habitual criminal. However, at a recent match Smith was approached by Highland League secretary and told to stop, as this was illegal because of an infringement of copright. He was then told that he would be fined £5,000 by the league.
First of all, we should consider the legal implications of what would said. Firstly, and obviously, this is not an issue of copyright. Copyright doesn’t apply to a football match, rather to materials that have been created by somebody. This is an issue of rights. Since Smith has created the video himself, he, if anybody, holds the copyright to the footage that he has filmed. The Highland League almost certainly holds the rights to filmed coverage of matches in its competitions, but it is strikingly odd that they would take action against one individual for filming matches, especially since he had the permission of the club to film matches there.
The Highland League has not sold (or indeed given) the rights to any of its matches any individual organisation. As such, Smith is performing a service to the league in going to the trouble of recording their matches and uploading them to the internet so that others can enjoy them. It is appropriately draconian that a football authority (albeit a minor one) should take such action and get it wrong, when there was a self-evident and obvious alternative available to them. They could have thanked him for his time and interest, and that looked into ways that they could have expanded it. They could have advertised for volunteers and set up a video channel for the Highland League, which would have been a service to the supporters of every club in the league. This, however, seems to have escaped their radar. The issue is now, apparently, to be discussed at a league meeting next month.
What the Highland League may have learnt from this heavy-handed exercise is that attempts to control the media can be a doubled-edged sword. The story made the Scottish edition of The Sun and The Scotsman newspapers, as well as the “Reporting Scotland” news programme on the BBC. None of the coverage, needless to say, has been particularly complimentary towards them, with The Scotsman going to the trouble of contacting a leading specialist in intellectual property law to seek clarification over the legal position. Moreover, David Smith has the support of Buckie Thistle, who have described the actions of the Highland League as “just crazy” and have stated that Smith “has been providing a fantastic service”.
All of this brings us back to our opening paragraph. David Smith is a sixteen year old volunteer at a small football club, and heaven knows that the game needs more of them. The level at which it could be considered that behaviour which scares one of these precious individuals is a positive one is a fairly staggering leap of knowledge. No-one would seek to deny the Highland League their commercial rights (and, indeed, their copyright over things that are subject to such laws), but to act like this towards someone that has, without profit, been quietly – and free of charge – been promoting their organisation that they could (or even should) be doing themselves is bizarre and self-defeating. Should you wish to express your disquiet to the Highland League, you may do so by signing this petition.