Ian Plenderleith reports on the unexpected legal fallout from Notts County's first round FA Cup match against Cambridge

The webmaster of a small, non-profit making Notts County website was surprised to receive a ro­bust letter from the Football Association re­cently. His crime was to feature a video high­lights clip from the FA Cup first round match against Cambridge United. The FA were not happy at all.

“The Football Association holds the copy­right to this footage,” wrote the FA’s Steve John­son, whose job is grandly described as Brand Protection Officer. “We have not con­sented to your use of the footage and by including such footage in your site you are infringing our copyright. With this in mind, I require you to remove the footage from your website with immediate effect.”

After furthering ordering the site to delete the footage from all storage media, the letter warned: “Should you fail to do any of the above then we will have no option but to consider for­mal legal action. We will also contact your web server with a view to placing a block on your website until the footage is removed.”

Was the FA right to send such a heavy-­handed letter – which is a “cease and desist” order, one step prior to a High Court injunction – to such a tiny website? Technically, yes, even if they come across sounding pompous, bullying and dictatorial. The FA are following the trend set by FIFA when they closed down a popular website showing archive footage of World Cup goals. When commercial and copy­right issues clash, then the owners to the copy­right understandably take an interest.

On the other hand, this letter was aimed at a website catering to a small number of Notts County fans, and which had no intention of making any money through its unknowing breach of the FA’s copyright. Is such footage on an independent fan site not more likely to help promote the FA Cup than render the FA bankrupt?

Johnson says that the FA takes its intellectual property rights “very seriously”, and that when someone makes unauthorised use of ma­terial “we have taken action... and we will continue to do so in the future.

“We also have a large number of exclusive com­mercial contracts which prohibit the us­age of our intellectual property across a wide range of activities and categories by any party other than our appointed sponsors and li­censees,” Johnson told WSC. Although the FA had no wish to discourage or prevent peo­ple from running “informative and legitimately established” football websites, it had to retain “complete control” over its copy­right material.

So, another nail in the coffin of the internet’s founding principles of free information for all, as few part-time, webzine editors are likely to have the time or the cash to fight the FA in court. Nor would they be likely to win. Faced with such an attitude from the game’s higher authorities, the unofficial Notts County website’s first reaction was to consider closing down altogether. Which raises the multi-layered question: just what is the FA’s principle goal? Promotion of the game, or protection of their brand?

I’ve never been to a reserve match, and I don’t know many people who have, but after reading the match reports from the Killer Bs section of ALS, the website of the publisher which produces two Sunderland fanzines A Love Supreme and Sex And Chocolate, I feel like I’ve been missing out.

Its semi-stream-of-consciousness accounts of Sunderland Reserves’ games covers the things you probably won’t experience at a first team match – who was there watching from the first team staff, what they said either out loud or under their breath, and the joys of moving around to different parts of the ground and not having to queue for food and drink. This is all helped by lively writing and detailed views of who’s shaping up in the stiffs.

The site overall is awkward to navigate, and you might find yourself unsure which fanzine you’re in or whether you’ve accidentally landed in a sponsor’s ad, but if youare willing to search you can unearth strong archive material from both magazines.

Ely City’s reserve team reports are narrated by various players, and are all the more entertaining for it. “One player was more concerned about not wearing the new socks in case he got blisters,” reports Antony Peake before the team’s game away at local rivals Littleport Town, which he cites as the kind of attitude that led to a 3-0 defeat. No doubt he has made himself a popular figure in the changing room by airing the Jewson League club’s second string’s dirty laundry to a billion potential readers.

He doesn’t think much of the opposition either. “Port makeshift centre forward Alan White was doing his best to send his manager’s blood level to boiling point and it wasn’t a surprise to see the little sh*t substituted early in the second half,” Peake notes, setting himself up for a potentially interesting clash in the return fixture. If he makes it – the player himself came on in the 70th minute and limped off again ten minutes later after giving a goal away (wonder what his team-mates had to say about that). Check out the first team reports too, which are concise but witty.

Much rather that than the kind of attempted humour on show at sportsoffensive.com. Just as sites claiming to be irreverent rarely are, trying too hard to be rude and vulgar leaves the content of this rancid little effort looking like it was written by a bad-mannered ten-year-old with Tourette’s Syndrome. If they ever show it to their mums, it could well be that they’re told their product is neither clever nor funny. And mum, as all little boys know, is rarely wrong.

Finally, for those of you who think it’s too cold out to watch a reserve game, or who would rather yell your profanities in front of a large screen with a pint glass in your hand and a heater under your backside, Sportspubs.co.uk is a new site to guide you to the best drinking venues for watching football. At the moment it only takes in London, but covers the city fairly and comprehensively, and plans to expand across the rest of the UK in the spring. Looking to the digitally led future, this site anticipates the day you will be able to able to sit in a pub in Inverness watching Ely City reserves crash to Bluntisham in the William Cockell Cup.

From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month

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