The BBC News Online ran an article this week about the sale of counterfeit football shirts and the efforts of Umbro to stop it. It followed the courageous work of George, an undercover Umbro investigator, to stop this despicable trade. To be honest George, I hope they pay to a lot for this work, because you cannot be doing it for the good of society. If there ever was anything approaching a victimless crime, counterfeiting England shirts must be close.
Umbro paid The English Football Association £180 million for the exclusive right to produce the latest English strip. This exclusivity is allegedly being undermined by the counterfeiter, who obviously paid the FA sweet FA. The BBC reports that between 9 in 10, and 1 in 30 shirts sold in the UK are counterfeit. Now, this particular statistic should tip people off to the quality of the article. The BBC is effectively saying that counterfeit sales make up between between 3% and 90% of total sales. As counterfeit sales must be between 0% and 100%, the BBC isn't really sticking its neck out with its own estimates.
But, beyond the BBC's precision, and back to the counterfeiters craven theft of Umbro's valuable exclusive rights to the English strip. But who loses?
Umbro share holders? Umbro's accounts report that it made £24.6m in 2004 on an investment of around £70m; a reasonable return. And I'm sure that they paid their £180m with a fairly good idea of the scale of the counterfeiting industry.
The FA? With the obscene riches in football today, £180m is just pocket change. What possible good could the FA do with the money. Give it to the footballers, their agents, or the rest of the huge gravy train. Most people probably think they footballers salaries should be cut by half. I'm sure that £50,000 a week should be enough to get most of them out of their beds to play for 90 minutes once a week. If the FA needs some more money, levy the clubs.
The public? Counterfeiters give the ordinary fans the ability to keep up with the ever changing on-field fashions of heros without bankcrupting themselves.
What all these monopolists seem not to remember, copying isn't theft. Their ability to carry on making English shirts haven't been taken away - intellectual property cannot be taken away. Governments have just created this sort of property, as they have judged that in many cases society is better off if copying is controlled. And in many cases, they're right, such as drugs and the latest Dan Brown novel. But in this case, I can see no such benefit.
Now Umbro might want to carry on employing George. Its their profit he's helping to support. But please BBC, can be have a better crime to expose.