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Bunhill: It's time to patent the football bung

WE ALL know that selling is tough, but "ambush marketing"? Does this mean taking the phrase "cut-throat competition" literally? Hand over your focus group or your wife gets it? Sadly, the truth is more mundane - and more absurd.

Ambush marketing means trading on the goodwill of someone's business without paying for the right. It stormed mob-handed out of the bushes during last summer's football fest when for every Fifa-accredited "official World Cup sponsor" - forking out millions for the privilege to use those words - there were canny competitors hijacking the tournament to promote their own goods without paying. Chief among these rebel sponsors was Nike, which didn't need to do anything so obvious as use the words "official" and "World Cup" in its advertising. Instead, tangential messages such as "Liberte pour les Footballeurs" dominated billboard space in Paris.

But the distinction between official and unofficial sponsor became even more surreal. For example, Sainsbury's got itself accredited as the "Official England World Cup Supermarket", which you might think was enough strained juxtapositions to be going on with. But no. Those fearless rebels at Waitrose came up with the "Unofficial World Cup Red Wine" and, Che Guevara-like, Tesco brought us "The Ultimate World Cup Meat Feast Pizza". Sainsbury's reasserted itself with the "Official England Chicken Tikka Masala".

It all sounds like good fun, but the tournament's official sponsors weren't laughing. They'd forked out up to pounds 20m each for such benefits as having their names displayed on perimeter hoardings during matches, but then upstart rivals came along and muddied their pitch. Indeed, research indicated that Nike was perceived by the public as being an official World Cup sponsor - and it hadn't paid Fifa a penny.

With both the rugby and cricket world cups taking place in the UK next year, and the Olympic torch reaching Australia in 2000, ambush marketing has become a concern. After all, if companies believe it's not worth their while stumping up for official status, where's that going to leave the coffers of the sporting associations?

It was to address this problem that Russell Jones & Walker, a firm of solicitors, staged a seminar at Chelsea Village entitled "Ambush marketing - the protection and exploitation of sports sponsorship rights". With delegates from marketing, sports sponsorship, broadcasting and sporting organisations, the conference claimed to have reached a libertarian conclusion: ambush marketing could not be eliminated, and anyway, it was just a normal part of the competitive process.

One of the recommendations for protecting sponsorship rights is greater statutory protection. In the UK, every patent application submitted to the Trademark Office will only be authorised or rejected after opponents have been allowed to state their case, and this can be tough to achieve. After the 1994 tournament, Fifa applied to have "World Cup" registered as a trademark in time for France '98. It's still waiting.

What the sports sponsorship industry would like to see is something more akin to the "Olympic Insignia Protection Act 1997" or the "Sydney 2000 Games Act 1996", two statutes effected by the Australian Parliament. Among other things, it will be an offence to use the Olympic symbol or words such as "gold", "silver" and "bronze" without the permission of the Sydney organising committee.

Then there's the policing of the brands. Among the guidelines drawn up at the Russell Jones & Walker seminar are that retail outlets and the police should be educated as to what is official merchandise; that the use of "advertising platforms" should be strictly regulated by local councils and transport authorities; and that "air exclusion zones" should be established over stadiums.

While these measures might seem more over the top than any World Cup tackle, I hope they are all implemented; the results should be hilarious. Can you imagine the police raiding shops selling unauthorised merchandise? "Right, 16 packets of unofficial cricket world cup lasagne - read him his rights."

And spare a thought for the sporting organisations trying to patent every word or phrase that has the vaguest association with a particular sport. Take football: they could trademark "bung", "sheepskin coat", "cruciate ligament injury", "faith-healer" or "book deal", and still the marketeers would find an ingenious way round it. After all, the only thing that gives the game away in most cigarette advertisements is the government health warning.